The Big Fish Story

Fishermen and activists struggle to create a more sustainable industry

News | Christian Cummins | June 2013

"Right now in our world, the power of money rules," said shaven-headed, small-scale fisherman Christian Zovic, gazing out at the sparkling Adriatic Sea at the port of Koper in Slovenia, "but our power lies in our numbers. We are many, and if we unite we can change things for the better."

The changes Zovic dreams of are dependent on the once-in-a-decade rewriting of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – the rules that govern our harvesting of the continent’s seas. Zovic and his allies want to see sweeping reforms that would allow stocks to recover and livelihoods to be saved. This May, European fisheries ministers met in Brussels in a key stage of the arduous negotiation process to find a text that is acceptable to the 27-member nations and their myriad vested interests.

When the ministers emerged from their mammoth 36-hour session on 14 May, Maria Damanaki, EU fisheries commissioner, declared that they had agreed on "a radical change in the way we fish". This included, she announced, a gradual phasing out of the wasteful practice of discarding healthy fish at sea and promises to heed scientific advice on "maximum sustainable yields".

Ecologists have called the reforms encouraging but complained there are still too many caveats and loopholes and no fixed timetable for the recovery of the continent’s heavily depleted fish stocks. The document still has to be discussed by the European parliament and commission before the text is finalised. That process could take months so the battle for influence over future policy wages on.


Making the seas sustainable

In this battle, the environmental pressure group Greenpeace has identified a clear enemy – the vast trawlers which have the capacity to sweep up 250 tons of fish a day in nets that Greenpeace says are big enough to hold 13 jumbo jets. Even with very few days at sea, these ships are depleting the stocks at a rate that nature cannot reproduce. Estimates suggest that 75 per cent of Europe’s stocks are overfished.

Greenpeace complains that due to an unfair imbalance of power, a few huge trawlers have preferential access to Europe’s fishing stocks, leaving the majority of fishermen fighting over scraps. Eighty per cent of European fishing boats are less than 12 metres in length but have rights to only twenty per cent of the continent’s fish stocks.

The result: crippling unemployment in depressed coastal communities. This neglected majority, claims Greenpeace, fishes in a more sustainable way. Their lines are more discerning than the huge trawling nets and there is less "collateral damage". So these fishermen and the ecologists have struck up an interesting alliance.

"Greenpeace is not anti-fishing in any manner," insists the lobby group’s fishery expert Tina Thullen. "It’s quite the opposite, we believe that the sea can only survive in co-operation with the people using it. And the reality is that small scale fishermen along Europe’s coastline are creating a great deal more employment per ton of fish caught than the industrial trawlers."

She said that, as opposed to the self-sufficient "factory ship" trawlers, the small-scale fishing fleet generates further on-shore jobs in processing and selling the fish and are "integral to the social, economic and cultural fabric of coastal communities."

To bang the drum for their cause, Greenpeace’s campaign ship, the Arctic Sunrise has been calling in at the various ports of the European Union this spring, bringing fishermen from the member states together and organising meetings with European politicians and journalists. The tour will conclude in the U.K. on 6 June.

At Koper, fisherman Christian Zovic, a Croat from near Rijeka, waxed lyrical about his mariner’s life. "To be a fisherman means to be at one with nature," he said. "It means to love nature and to love the sea. It’s a way of life. It’s in my blood." Yet if that way is to continue, it is imperative that the small scale-fishermen organise themselves better.


Reforming how to fish

Their voices are seldom heard in the corridors of power in Brussels, however, complained Thullen, because the industrial fleet is very well organised politically.

"They have representation in Brussels; they have very good contacts to the politicians. We’ve even seen industry representatives entering the European Council building alongside the ministers."

Fighting against these powerful lobbies has taken the Arctic Sunrise into troubled waters. In recent campaigns, the 40-year-old ship pursued European trawlers as they scooped fish out of the West African waters, endangering, claims Greenpeace, the livelihoods of local artisanal fishermen.

Using four inflatable speed boats, known as ribs, the Arctic Sunrise crew approached the trawlers and scrawled the words "plunder" or "pillage" on their hulls. This has led to accusations of piracy by some in the business community.

Sporting the impressively muscled and tattooed forearms that made him look like a young and hirsute Popeye, Martti Leinonen, the Finnish second mate of the Arctic Sunrise, leaned against the white rails in front of the ship’s bridge as he dismissed the accusations.

"Anyone calling us a pirate should look the word up on Wikipedia and find out what it really means," he scowled. Industrial fishing companies have claimed that Greenpeace’s actions have endangered their crews. "They’re exaggerating," retorted Leinonen. He insists that his crew’s motto is always "safety first", but added that direct action was necessary to publicise fishing practices that the companies would prefer to keep hidden from the world.

Leinonen says this is his favourite Greenpeace campaign so far.

"There’s no flip-side of the coin here," he says, "If and when we win, it is nature that wins, fish biodiversity and most of all the local traditional fishermen of Europe. The only losers will be the big greedy companies that fish with giant trawlers and steal all the fish from the sea."

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