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Overfishing: is it the end of the line for North Sea cod?

Sarah Ensor looks at how markets and quotas mean there aren’t plenty more fish in the sea

Issue No. 2322

A century ago, it was common to catch North Sea cod that were two metres long and weighed more than 90kg. Today they are more likely to come in at a puny 35cm.

Overfishing has decimated the cod population. Few are able to reach adult size without being caught. There could be as few as 100 adult cod in the entire North Sea, according to a recent study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Unless urgent action is taken the population may never recover. And as European fish stocks have declined, fishing bosses have looked further afield.

They have bought fishing rights from African governments in financial difficulty. At one point a fifth of the Mauritanian government’s income came from this kind of deal.

As a result the sea-fish population around Africa’s coast has fallen by half in three decades. This has put thousands of people out of work.


And when some species are driven to the verge of extinction, the fishing industry moves onto others. The decline of tuna, cod and marlins has seen many companies move their operations into deepwater fishing.

The populations of some deepwater fish have plummeted by 87 percent in 17 years. Overfishing is now a major environmental issue—and one that could threaten human food supplies.

The European Union (EU) regulates fishing with quotas that limit how much of each kind of fish member states can catch in a particular area. These quotas are supposed to reflect conservation needs.

The North Sea cod quota has already shrunk to a tenth of the size it was in the 1970s. Further reductions are likely in a last ditch attempt to avoid extinction.

But the EU also says it favours “growth”—which means more fishing boats catching more fish. Fishing is big business. Skippers who often own their boats risk fines to land millions of tons of undeclared fish.

Humans have always caught and eaten fish. But the development of freezer technology since the Second World War created a global market for it. It could now be stored and traded as a commodity—bought cheaply in one area and sold wherever the market would pay most.

Overfishing combined with global warming and water pollution to drive the destruction of marine life. All these processes are a result of a system that puts profit before long term human need. This system now threatens the future of our oceans—and our ability to continue living off them.

Quota system creates horrific waste

The EU’s quota system is sometimes presented as an alternative to the unrestrained competition of the market. In fact it institutionalises competition.

Individual states lobby for their own fishing industries and against others. For example, this summer British fisheries minister Richard Benyon met with other European fisheries ministers. He argued that Cornish fishing workers should get a larger share of the quota than Spanish ones.

As well as sowing nationalist division, the system creates enormous waste. One of the biggest problems is the fish that are caught but then thrown away to comply with quotas.

Fish of different species often swim together—and are caught in the same nets. Every year half the fish caught are thrown back into the North Sea.

The EU announced a plan to phase in bans on these “discards” by 2018. Celebrity cod-botherer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called it a “massive breakthrough”.

But the ban won’t make the problem go away. As long as there are quotas, the waste will continue. The solution is not EU bureaucracy, but a democratically planned economy.

Livelihoods under threat

Towns on the east coast of Scotland rely on fishing. Around 5,000 people work on fishing boats at sea, and up to 20,000 more on land in support industries that make their work possible. Thousands more work in fish processing factories, which are the main employers in many towns.

The amount of work available varies massively with the seasons and workers face low pay in hard conditions. As cod catches decline, large boat owners want to be paid to decommission their boats—in other words, to be paid not to fish.

Small boat owners will effectively get a small redundency package followed by unemployment. Crews will get nothing.

The Scottish fleet which catches cod has shrunk from 800 boats to 250 in just 20 years. In the region of Aberdeenshire, employment in fishing decreased by 44 percent from 2000 to 2001.

There is also an urgent need for funding to create jobs in other sectors—such as the enormous potential for wind and wave power.

The deadliest job in Britain

Fishing is hard, dangerous work. Fishing workers in Britain are 115 times more likely to be killed at work than any other worker. The level of fatalities has not been reduced in 30 years.

Many fishers work alone as the income from their quota isn’t enough for more than one wage. They often can’t afford safety equipment because they earn less than the minimum wage.

Big money for tiddling fines

Earlier this year some 27 skippers and three processing plants in Scotland were caught after a seven year investigation. They had been found to be illegally fishing outside their quotas.

The fines and confiscations orders totalled nearly £4 million. But the fish landed illegally was estimated to be worth over £63 million.

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Tue 25 Sep 2012, 18:30 BST
Issue No. 2322
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