Europe has too many fishermen, too few fish

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The Independent Online

The proceedings of the 26th annual Larval Fish Conference in Bergen, Norway, may seem difficult to follow for those without a deep and abiding passion for the deep, but the news that the common skate may have been fished to extinction is an easily grasped indication that something in the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has gone terribly wrong.

In general, we have paid far less attention to the CFP than to its cousin, the Common Agricultural Policy, whose egregious iniquities were obvious early on in the butter mountain and the wine lake, products of an initial mission to look after agricultural producers at the expense of everything else. Forty years on, with more than half the skylarks having vanished from our countryside, we are a lot wiser about the sort of farming regime Europe ought to have, and the CAP is being reformed in the direction of common sense and environmental responsibility.

But, as the fate of the skate makes all too clear – and other European fish stocks are in terrible trouble, too – similar reform of the CFP is long overdue. The core issue is similar: just as European farmers were producing too much, European fishermen are catching too much. There are too many fishermen in Europe, and not enough fish. There is much sympathy for fishermen, who often risk, and sometimes lose, their lives bringing us valuable food from a hostile environment, and this is entirely right; but all the sympathy in the world cannot disguise the fact that the fish stocks of Europe's waters are limited, and in areas such as the North Sea they are now being exploited beyond their limits.

This year the Common Fisheries Policy undergoes an official review. As environment ministers of the North Sea countries declared at the Bergen conference yesterday, fishing conservation measures, such as extensive no-fishing zones, must now be a priority; but even more important is a radical cutback in fishing effort.

It is becoming clear that Europe's fishing fleet will have to be cut by as much as half. Generous mitigation measures will obviously be necessary for the small fishing communities that would be hard hit, but radical cuts there will have to be, and all nations will have to make sacrifices. This will have to be done, or the common skate of the North Sea will not be alone in disappearing and fishing effort will decline inexorably – as there will be nothing left to fish for.