COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the UK fisheries industry, a traditional source of jobs and income for many coastal communities. Although shoppers are still emptying supermarket shelves and stocking up on staples—including fish—disruption to lucrative export and catering markets has led to a large decline in demand for fish caught by UK fleets, leaving many vessels tied up in port and putting much of the industry’s business activity on hold.
This disruption—and the economic pain it’s causing—is likely to continue for a while, and add to the uncertainty the fishing industry faces from Brexit and the still evolving relationship between the UK and the EU. Major pillars of the governance that underpins the UK fishing industry’s activities—the process used to decide how much fish can be caught and the rules under which products can be sold abroad—will potentially change later this year as London and Brussels negotiators hammer out the details of their future economic relationship.
Notwithstanding the unexpected social and economic shock triggered by COVID-19, lockdowns, and the highly political—and contentious—Brexit process, the lessons from fisheries management around the world, and in some cases closer to home, show that everyone benefits when managers make sustainability a priority. That’s because sustainability leads to a virtuous cycle in which fish populations recover, grow in size, and provide higher yields and profits for fishers.
However, when governments shy away from improving the health of their fisheries, the reverse is true—overfishing leads to the further depletion of stocks, which, in turn, hurts the economies of fishing communities. So decision-makers need to take steps that will help fish stocks grow and keep fisheries resilient.
Resilience is critical because wild fisheries rely on healthy natural ecosystems to remain productive. To protect and maintain these ecosystems, responsible, precautionary management should mitigate inaccuracies in stock assessments, take account of interactions between species and changes in ecosystems, and provide transparent, predictable policy responses to changing trends or data that allow fishing businesses to plan effectively.
These basic principles were incorporated in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2013, reforms that the UK played a lead role in brokering. The UK now needs to demonstrate at least the same level of ambition when it sets its own fisheries policies as an independent coastal state.
The story of the CFP since 2013 has been one of incremental progress, which was not fast enough to meet its own deadlines. For example, the EU still sets catch limits above the levels advised by scientists, and does so often in agreement with countries such as Norway, which is not an EU member. The EU has made progress protecting fish stocks where robust data is available, but allows for—and takes greater risks with—higher catch limits than scientists advise where the status of stocks is uncertain. This is the opposite of the “precautionary approach” required by international law and the CFP.
But too often fisheries management has focused only on maximising extraction of protein in the short term and for a single species at a time, rather than the long-term functioning of the whole ecosystem. This short-term perspective, which ignores the past productivity of some fish populations, has led managers to focus on avoiding further collapse of stocks rather than restoring the populations to their previous size—leading, in turn, to wild swings in productivity as recovering stocks become over-exploited and then crash again.
The recent history of North Sea cod is a good example of how we haven’t fully learned the lessons of the past. This stock began recovering a decade ago from an all-time low, so consumers were told to eat it guilt-free again, and quota controls were loosened. But the stock was fished too aggressively and too soon, causing it to once again fall as fishing pressure crept too high, and the stock again headed below safe limits. This, in turn, led to a severe quota cut this year and all the accompanying economic losses. Other cod stocks around the UK—under pressure from environmental changes and being fished too aggressively—are also severely depleted.
The UK government has promised to do better once outside the CFP, with “world-leading” fisheries management that would overcome past failings. The decisions it takes this year as it negotiates new frameworks—and 2021 management arrangements—will test this commitment. Although everyone agrees that fisheries need to be sustainable in the long term, political imperatives can take things in a different direction during the late-night talks each December at which the following year’s quotas are discussed and agreed to. In or out of the CFP, these highly politicised talks—among the UK, EU, and Norway—are likely to continue each autumn.
To achieve the stable fisheries management that would avoid the boom and bust we’ve seen in European fisheries, the UK should realise that stability goes hand in hand with caution. We cannot set short-term catch limits at the absolute maximum advised by scientists—or even above that level—year after year out of political expedience without seeing costly crashes in the medium term. Instead, the best way to overcome these risks is to agree to harvest strategies that include binding long-term science-based objectives for all fish populations—and stick to them.
The UK’s post-Brexit management system should be built upon such a long-term, precautionary, and ecosystem-based approach. To provide stable food supplies, jobs and livelihoods, the policy must maintain the functioning of complex marine food webs, avoiding wild swings—especially since productivity is already being affected by other threats, such as climate change. COVID-19 has shown us the damaging impact of a major demand shock on the fishing industry. The only way to mitigate future supply shocks is to prepare now—with forward thinking and cautious management.
Andrew Clayton is project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending overfishing in northwestern Europe campaign.
This article was previously published on Bright Blue.