The Tragedy of the Commons
Fisheries regulations within the EU
This article is part of a series on Fisheries. For a comprehensive overview of the impact of overfishing on marine ecosystems read The Hidden Costs of Seafood.
At this point most of us are aware that we are probably fishing a lot more than what we should but what is the actual impact of our eating habits? As of 2018, two thirds of the world’s fisheries have collapsed, meaning they are fished to the point they cannot recover, depriving local communities of their income and food source. Collapsed fisheries also have major implications on the entire ecosystem affecting larger fish, seabirds and marine mammals.
Concern over fisheries sustainability is not a novel concept. The United Nations held its first Conference on the Laws of the Sea back in 1958 which led to the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. UNCLOS came about after centuries of complete fishing freedom and it constitutes the most comprehensive set of international regulations on marine governance. Its creation has been monumental as it was the first time that international law perceived marine resources as finite.
Within the EU, fisheries are managed according to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) first introduced in the 1970s. Its main aim is to regulate the exploitation of this common resource in order to ensure long term sustainability and fair access for everyone. Under the CFP, each country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is shared between member states creating a unified fishing fleet. This fleet is managed under several measures including:
- Total Allowable Catches (TACs) which set the maximum amount of fish that can be landed from particular areas
- Gear regulations which ensure the banning of destructive fishing practices and improve gear selectivity to reduce bycatch
- Minimum allowable size for each species
- Closed areas and seasonal closures whereby fishing is banned in some areas
- Limiting Capacity of fleet to reduce fishing pressure
Established measures are based on fish stocks assessments conducted by the Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES). ICES is responsible for providing scientific advice to the European Commission which in turn produces guidelines for its member states. Proposed measures are discussed and agreed upon on the national level. Also we should remember that there is a great difference in the impact between commercial, small scale, and recreational fishers and they should not be regarded as a single group.
Even though the CFP is the main legal instrument to manage EU fish stocks it has been heavily critiqued due to its failure to deliver the expected results. Fish stocks continue to dwindle and efforts to minimise fishing fleets have failed due to a number of reasons:
- As it is often the case, when scientific advice is undergoing the political process of legislation it is watered down or dismissed as alarmist instead of it being the backbone of regulations. As a result, TACs are often set much higher than the recommended amount. To illustrate that in 2002, the ICES recommended a complete cessation of cod fishing in the North Sea due to fishery collapse. After passing through the various stages of regulation setting, it was finally agreed upon to reduce the TAC by 45% and limit fishing effort. As a reaction to the dismissal of scientific evidence fisheries scientists interest has been largely directed away from management related research.
- Implementation of measures is exceptionally slow. Approval and rolling out of regulations can be very lengthy leading to continuation of excessive fishing in areas already known to be fragile.
- Law enforcement is weak due to the inaccessibility of the marine environment. Additionally, there is a strong resistance from fishers to abide by regulations, mainly due to economic necessity and mere impracticality of regulations. For example, the TACs system and size regulations has fishers discarding large amounts of dead fish back into the sea generating a whole new problem. The tragedy of the commons comes into play whereby no individual user of a common resource is willing to reduce their own personal exploitation due to the fear that someone else will take their share. Even though fishers are often aware that regulations are for the long term sustainability of the stocks the immediate economic gain often drives illegal fishing.
- Lack of political will due to electoral politics. Politicians are unlikely to enforce measures that will render them unpopular with the fishing lobby as they are jeopardising their future re-election. Difficulties in implementation can result from the EU being a coalition of countries with different legal and administrative structures. Thus, policies can be a ‘’better fit’’ for some countries while posing great difficulty in others.
- CFP subsidies often go towards funding fishing fleets greatly contributing to overfishing. This has led to a growth of the fishing fleet and an expansion of the fishing range directly contributing to the depletion of these already overfished resources.
As sustainability of the sector depends on the health of biodiversity, it is crucial that regulations are constantly reviewed and updated in light of new findings. Through this process it is hoped that their effectiveness will be improved.
Article written by Venetia Galanaki.