The world´s oceans cover about seventy percent of our planet. It might seem unbelievable, but the biggest part of the Earth could actually be empty soon. The reality is that we are running out of fish. Scientists know, governments know and fishermen know, but so far attempts to prevent this have not been very successful. Instead, government measures only seem to lead to more fish going to waste.
Ask yourself how much you really know about the fish left in our oceans. You will probably know that overfishing is a problem. However, are you aware how serious the problem really is? An international scientific study calculated that the seas will be empty within 40 years. That is, completely empty, no more fish to be found. But only if the world´s fishing fleets will continue the way they do right now.
As one of the biggest markets for seafood in the world, the European Union is actively contributing to this problem, and the EU-politicians know this. Special rules are in place to prevent overfishing, the most important one being the implementation of so-called fishing quotas. Spanish fisherman Javier Prieto explains: “A quota is the maximum amount of fish that you can catch in a year. This amount is distributed first by the EU among its member states, which then divide them among their fleets.”
However, these quotas are not solving the problem, according to Rainer Froese, fishery expert and marine biologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel. “The idea of quotas is not bad in essence”, says Kroese, “but what we are having now is legalized overfishing: it is clear where quotas should be set, but they are intentionally set too high for many kinds of fish.” He goes on to explain that, for example, the quota for North Sea cod is set at two to three times the sustainable level. This is mostly due to pressure from the international fishing lobby.
But even when quotas are set at the right level, there is a problem with them: they only dictate the amount of fish that fleets can land. When fishermen reel in their nets, they can´t decide how much (or what kind) is in there. If there is too much fish, and there usually is, they have no other choice than to dump it back into the ocean. Of course, by then these fish are already dead.
Prieto, who has 21 years experience as a fisherman, specifies that “between 25% and 30% of the fish they catch is put back into the sea again” because in the eyes of the law, it is illegal. If they land it, they get minimum fines of €3000. The consequence of this phenomenon is that around 1.3 million tons of fish is thrown away every year in the EU.
Froese is optimistic about the future because a period of change seems to be coming: The European Commission has decided in December to reform the fishing policy. On the one hand, fisheries will from now on have to start landing their bycatch instead of dumping it. On the other hand, the Commission finally agreed that quotas are about to become a lot stricter. Even that they may finally be set exactly where they need to be in order enforce sustainable fishing.
The effectiveness of these changes is still uncertain but it shows there is progress in the fight against the emptiness of the oceans. Moreover, it shows that people are slowly becoming aware of how dangerous the current situation is.
Beñat Flores, Anna Deryabina, Sander Heikens