Fishing at risk of sinking

Empty nets and a new European law. How fisheries may sink

Fishing at risk of sinking

Torben Ranthe, 39, fisherman of Aarsdale. His fishing quotas are for cod and salmon.

© OCEAN2012/Roberto Grifoni

Published in Corriere della Sera, January 19 2012

Blue eyes, a face that seems to have been sculpted from wood, strong hands and a strong physique. Torben Ranthe, 39 years old, from Bornholm, Denmark, has Viking blood in his veins. On board his boat he puts away his gear, and while he scrutinises the grey sea of a Baltic winter, he resembles one of those ancient explorers, a bit merchant, a bit pirate, who set sail from the fjords in their warships to conquer new lands. 

But Torben is a fisherman and has never ventured far with his boat. At most some miles in the direction of Russia in search of salmon. When he returns from fishing, he reserves a few good specimens for Henning Jensen, who lives not far from him, at Aarsdale, and has one of the four remaining smokehouses on the island. 

Like the majority of the small-scale Danish fishermen, Torben doesn’t have it easy. He studied to be a mechanic but a passion for the sea led him every summer during vacations to go to sea on a fishing boat. Until in 1995 he bought his own boat, 12 metres. He lived well, so much so that he imagined a future and having a family. Then things changed. That which had been a traditional occupation, which for centuries had maintained entire generations, became a job which didn’t provide enough to live on. Because in the sea there are always fewer fish, because market prices collapsed and because in Denmark, since 2003, a law has been in force that complicates the fishermen’s lives, and economy a good deal. What does this law say? That in order to resolve the problem of the scarcity of fish stocks, the fleet must be reduced. Fewer fish, fewer boats, in other words. But the problem has not been resolved. And so a quota system was introduced, to regulate the quantity of fishing.

Torben’s story is of interest to us because it could become the story of all the small-scale fishermen of Europe. The European Commission would in fact like to impose this system on all the member countries of the Community. Italy would find itself having to confront the same problems that today afflict Torben and his mates. Multiplied though, because in Italy, coastal fishing vessels represent more than 50% of the fishing fleet. 

The trading of concessions

On one thing everyone agrees:  something must be done. The lack of adequate controls, the development of technology that has made catching more efficient – but with greater environmental impact - and the lack of environmental awareness by the majority of fishermen, have resulted in catches progressively exceeding the level that could guarantee the recovery of fish stocks. The result has been devastating: 82% of Mediterranean stocks and 63% of those in the Atlantic are today being subjected to overexploitation, landings have dramatically declined and the fishing sector faces an uncertain future.

The response from Brussels is called the TFC System that foresees a system of transferable fishing concessions. This means that each fishing vessel will have the right, for a duration of 15 years, to a percentage of the fishing quota allocated each year to each country, and that every fisherman can sell, buy or lease quotas to or from others, even partially.

The objective  is to guarantee to all, on paper, a slice of the market in proportion to their fishing capacity. But it is easy to see that the trading system creates a sort of privatization of fisheries. In particular where there is a decline in fish stocks, the fisherman who finds himself in economic difficulty because fish are scarce and prices have fallen, will be pushed into selling.  The quotas end up in the hands of a few, such as the owners of the economically stronger, large fishing vessels that fish beyond coastal waters, who already have a consistent volume of catch (taken, among other things, with fishing gear that is less sustainable for the environment). Bringing the smallest fishermen to their knees, if not pushing them completely out of the market, and creating, as it were, an oligopoly of the sea.

OCEAN2012, a coalition of environmental organisations and associations of small-scale fishermen dedicated to stopping overfishing and to bringing an end to the practice of destructive fishing, together with organisations such as Greenpeace and Living Seas, are mobilised, also at Community level, to steer the fisheries reform towards a policy that addresses the recovery of  fish stock as a priority.

“Denmark has significantly reduced its fleet, but at the cost of many fishermen who practiced a more sustainable fishery than that of the large fishing vessels, where today most of the fishing quotas are concentrated. Transferring the same system to the Mediterranean, where small-scale fishing prevails, could be a fatal error."  Domitilla Senni,  OCEAN2012

There where there used to be boats

The port of Svaneke, on the island of Bornholm. © OCEAN2012/Roberto Grifoni

“In Nexo, one of the main ports of Bornholm, in 2005 there were 49 fishing boats. Today there are 29. Which, however, maintain the overall tonnage of the quotas. The same thing has happened in the other ports of the island, so much so that from a total number of 150 boats six years ago, today we are down to 98.”

Jeppe Host, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen

A reality that also concerns other fisheries-related economic activities. Jens Skovgard, head of the Bornholm union, testifies to this. “In the 1980s we represented 200 crew members employed on fishing vessels, and considering that most were family-owned boats, one can say that this was a good number. Today they are 25. At the time there was a lot of activity in the shipyards and above all there was a flourishing processing industry. We had eight processing plants with around 2000 employees. The largest was Esperen, which alone employed 1000-1200 people. Then the fish began to decline and little by little the industries closed down. Esperen still exists but has delocalised. First it opened in Poland, then also in Lithuania, China and Vietnam. The fisheries crisis for us started in the 1980s, and no one did anything to stop it. As a matter of fact, the introduction of the transferable quota system has contributed to its drastic acceleration.”

“The fisheries crisis for us started in the 1980s... As a matter of fact, the introduction of the transferable quota system has contributed to its drastic acceleration.” Jens Skovgard, head of the Bornholm union.

The numbers confirm this: in the port of Tejn, in the ‘80s, there were 53 fishing boats. Today there are five. Some sold out of necessity, others let themselves be tempted by the value of the quotas and the immediate income that could be gained. 

It went well for Ivar Arvitsen. At 64, already at retirement age, he sold his boat and his quotas, making a nice nest-egg, and, not having a family, has declared himself satisfied with the results.

Somewhat less contented is Tommy Andersen, 54 years old: “I started fishing at 14 and for the past 25 years have always had my own boat. Five months ago I decided to sell my quota. There is increasingly less fish, the prices are increasingly lower, and when you take away your costs from what you earn there is almost nothing left. I had hoped to find a land-based job but it was impossible because the fisheries-related economy is also suffering. You can find some occasional work in the summer with the tourists, but you can’t live all year with that. So, since I had kept my boat, I began fishing again by leasing a quota. I pay four Kroner for every kilo of fish, when I sell it I earn eight, and after deducting costs almost nothing is left. I earn half of what I earned before, but if I had sold my boat I wouldn’t even have this income. Because those who leave the sector can’t get back in: the quotas cost too much and to buy them you have to go into debt with the banks. And with the crisis it’s difficult to find someone to grant you a loan.”

One million to start

Henning Finne, fisherman of Listed. His quotas provide for a catch of 80 tonnes of salmon per year. He does the work his father did, “but I hope that my children find another profession.”

© OCEAN2012/Roberto Grifoni

Indeed, the crisis has spared no one, not even Henning Finne, who has a boat at Listed (one of four remaining in the port) with which he fishes for salmon. “There are salmon, here in the Baltic. Except that the law prohibits us from catching those that are more than 3 kilos. This means that you have to be at sea for much longer to have an adequate catch. And with the cost of fuel today it means that your earnings are halved. I’ve been a fisherman all my life and want to continue, but everything is pushing me to stop, to sell the quotas and to suggest to my children that they choose a different profession. I do what my father did. For them this will no longer be possible."

To purchase a boat, acquire quotas…That comes to around one million Euro. No, it doesn’t seem easy for a young Dane to become a fisherman. “In ten, fifteen years there will no longer be any small boats on Bornhom,” says Torben bitterly. 

And the problem is larger than it seems. Because the value of small-scale fishing is based not only on the numbers that it represents on the global market. In a country like Denmark, on an island like Bornholm (but the same could be said of Italy and its hundreds of towns along the coast), fishermen like Torben, Tommy, Ivar and Henning represent the history, the tradition, the culture, the social fabric and the very identity of the community.

To help our youth we send them to fishing school

Mogens Schou is the consultant with the Danish Ministry of Fisheries who follows the application of the law on transferible quotas, of which he is a convinced supporter. “The number one problem was one of over-capacity of the fleet and the objective was to reduce the number of vessels. This has been achieved: in 2000 we had 4.141 fishing boats, in 2010 there were 2.822. Logically to reach this point someone had to be expelled from the sector, but today Danish fisheries are in good health.” And the problem of the scarcity of the stock? “That  should no longer be addressed at the economic  level but rather at the environmental level, and the only solution is the reduction of the quotas.” Fewer boats, fewer fishermen. How can a young person today enter the sector? “To be registered as a fisherman it is necessary to work for at least two years as a crew member and demonstrate that 60 per cent of one’s income derives from fishing. But for young people we also offer training in schools, for which every year 500 to 600 students sign up. We teach them the technical aspects of fishing but also safety at sea and environmental protection.”

Read this article in Italian.