The Coming Silent Seasons?

Part Four: Sterile Seas
The Oceans Are Emptying: Fish Wars & Sustainability
By Raymond A. Rogers

Black Rose Books
The End of the Line: How Over-fishing is Changing the World and What We Eat
By Charles Clover
Ebury Press £4.99 each, available at Bookbusters

Review feature by Tim Barton

At sea, as on land, our seasons become quieter. The two books reviewed here were published a decade apart – don’t ever say we weren’t warned.

In the early 90s the Grand Banks cod fisheries were collapsing. Giant mega-trawlers were hoovering all aquatic life out of the Atlantic at speed, and the catch was smaller and smaller with more and more sprats, less and less mature fish. The Canadian government called a moratorium on Newfoundland’s fishing on the Grand Banks in 1992, one meant to work for two years, but the collapse of the Atlantic cod was so severe that the moratorium remains today. The livelihood of Newfoundland’s fishermen was severely curtailed. A wider 1992 cod fishing ban was partially lifted in 1997, for political reasons: scientific opinion was that 5 years was about a third of the time necessary for recovery. In 2000, the World Wildlife Federation listed cod as an ‘endangered species’.

Raymond Rogers published his book in 1995, in the midst of the crisis. He concentrated on sustainability issues, arguing that the extreme exploitation of fisheries, especially from European mega-trawlers, was risking ecosystem collapse.

A decade on, Charles Clover’s book arrived. He, too, argued that cod depletion was both a symptom and a driver of the collapse of ocean ecosystems. Although fish stocks appeared to show signs of recovery from around 2011 (never to anything approaching 1990 levels, though), last year quotas were cut again, as the signs are that, once more, stocks are reducing. In the North Sea, this year the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is pushing for a 70% cut in cod quotas, as the population is so depleted.

As Rogers notes, cod is just one small mosaic tile in a much bigger picture of oceanic biotic collapse. Both these books concentrate on fisheries, and both deliver a hard message, but, as with so many ecological issues, one barely heard. Today, fish wars are looking like a fixture across the globe, with nations fighting over quotas and rights. The European Union quotas system is disliked by all fishing communities, of whatever nation – in my view, a sign they’ve got it right (more or less). With the possibility that we may leave the Union, a return to a hotter series of fish wars is a real possibility: some of us will remember skirmishes between Cornish and French fishermen in the 70s, and, of course, the Icelandic Cod Wars. In the absence of a will to enforce serious moratoria to allow fish stocks to replenish, only a fool would confidently suggest a peaceful resolution is possible.

Months ago, we witnessed a ‘slight return’ with the ‘Scallop Wars’, heralded in the pro-Brexit press as more evidence of why we should leave. Ironically, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the reality was more complex and put the UK in a bad light – the scallop beds were in French waters. The French government, painfully aware that the beds were being decimated, had a seasonal moratorium in place – French fishermen were not to fish there. Under EU rules, no moratorium existed, so British fishermen were allowed a quota. The ‘war’ between ‘five British vessels and twenty French vessels’ was sold as a David & Goliath moment. But our press had it in reverse – the French vessels were small trawlers, much like our beach fleet: the British? Five seabed-trashing mega-trawlers from the North East and Scots fisheries. ‘We’ were the aggressor.

Five months ago, the Scottish Creel Fisherman’s Federation announced the management of our shellfish stocks an ‘economic and environmental disaster’. Also this June, the Marine Conservation Society advised an immediate downward revision of North Sea catch quotas, as stocks are ‘plummeting’. Fishers know this is a ‘hammer blow’ to the industry, but the wiser of them know it is necessary. The WTO is trying to hammer out new regulations, deadlined for the new year, but the talks are going in circles. A UN report basically says we’re running out of fish, full stop.

And yet, over the last few weeks, the Dutch super-trawler, the Margiris, with a 6,000 tonne capacity, has been seen literally sucking fish out of the sea just a few miles off Hastings and Brighton – although after herring, mackerel and blue whiting, the giant hoover can’t differentiate, and in the shallow Channel is damaging the sea-bed. This is legal. Ironically, small boats like ours in Hastings are banned from drift-netting for sea bass in the same parts of the Channel despite being much less destructive.

In Hastings we have the kind of boats sanctioned to fish in places like the French scallop-beds – the whole incident would not have occurred if we’d been there instead. In his book, Rogers argues strongly for rights of smaller and more sustainable fishing communities. Our beach fleet would, for him, be a great example of how to do it. But, even this will be too much, if mega-industry is allowed to keep on as it is. As coral reefs and the seabed are increasingly damaged, as stocks plummet, as sprats are a bigger and bigger proportion of the catch, any fishing at all becomes a problem for the viability of sea life.

Over-fishing and the damage caused by mega-trawlers are only one aspect of the coming silent seasons and the seas. I’ll look at others in a future review.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.