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Stop blaming the fishermen – Part I

Posted by Richard Thursday, July 01, 2004

The article referred to below gives the opportunity to post a piece on the application of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. Because of its length, I have broken it up into several parts. This is part 1.

Make no mistake though. Although this is about the CFP, it is more than about fishing. The CFP embodies all that is wrong with the EU and thus serves as an object lesson as to why the larger system cannot work.


In today's Daily Telegraph, space is given to news articles on page two and to a comment section on page four by environment correspondent Charles Clover, coinciding with the publication of his book, End of the Line.

Of the various pieces, the comment, entitled "Fishermen are no Captain Birds Eyes", is especially objectionable, best described as garbage on stilts. It represents the very worst of environmental writing – ill-informed, prejudiced, dogmatic and plain unhelpful.

The particular relevance to this Blog, however, is that Clover takes a tilt at the Tories for wanting to repatriate the British fishing, taking it back from the dead hand of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, and restoring it to national control.

This Clover maintains, is "viscerally appealing" but the policy appears "backward looking and is almost certainly fantasy while we remain in the EU". So speaks the great sage, "It is also a distraction from the urgent task of making fishing sustainable".

Before taking Clover on, however, this writer - in the best tradition of journalism - must declare an interest. For more than six months, I have been retained as the researcher for the Conservative shadow fisheries team, tasked with developing and writing up a new fisheries policy, ready for the eventuality that a Conservative government is elected, and we are able to repatriate policy.

What Clover writes is so wide of the mark as to be almost complete parody and it is highly significant that, in writing his book, he never once contacted either me or anyone on the shadow team, the motivation of which he appears so knowledgeable. And his comments in his article are based on one short conversation with the shadow secretary of state. So much for objective journalism.

Anyhow, to return to the detail, Clover starts his piece – in the worst tradition of ill-informed environmental journalism - by making a spectacularly emotive attack on the fishing process, displaying to anyone with the slightest understanding of the issues, his total ignorance of the subject. "Imagine", he writes:

...what those animal welfare people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two vast all-terrain vehicles and dragged it across the plains of Africa. This fantastical assemblage, like something from a Mad Max movie, would scoop up everything in its way: lions, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, impala, wildebeest and wild dogs. Only the smallest juveniles would be able to wriggle through the mesh.
Warming to this imaginary horror, he continues:

The effect of dragging a net with an iron bar across its mouth across the plains is to break off every outcrop and uproot every bush, stirring columns of birds into the air. Left behind is a landscape like a harrowed field. The industrial hunter-gatherers stop to examine the tangled mess of writhing or dead creatures behind them. Some are too small, too mangled, or the wrong species. These are dumped on the plain to be consumed by carrion.
And, just in case you hadn't guessed, only does Clover now grandly inform us that "this efficient but unselective way of killing animals is called trawling".

Only it isn't.

In his opening reference to a "mile of net", Clover is more likely thinking of a drift net, or some sort of fixed gear. Trawl nets are never that wide. There is not a boat in the world that could tow such a monstrosity.

A drift net does what its name implies. It drifts, catching fish that happen upon it, the type of species caught depending on where in the water column it is hung. Fixed gear, such as gill nets, are, as their name implies, fixed. They are not dragged across the bottom. Either, used intelligently, are highly selective, and have its place in the tool bag of the modern fishing industry.

But in Clover's litany or horror, not only is this net a mile wide; it has an iron bar across its mouth. It effect is to "break off every outcrop and uproot every bush, stirring columns of birds into the air". It leaves behind "a landscape like a harrowed field".

What Clover is describing here is a beam trawl – which gets its name from the "iron bar" or "beam" across its mouth. The very largest of these are no larger than 40 feet wide – they cannot be wider because of the enormous power required to tow them. Most are much narrower, down to 14 feet.

There are two basic types, one with what are known as "tickler chains", the other with "chain mats", the function of either being to dig into the sea bed and force out buried flat fish into the mouth of the net.

All types have a very low head-rope height, as they are designed specifically for catching ground-hugging flatfish. They are supremely efficient at the job, and highly selective.

"Beamers", as they are known, typically produce very low by-catches. Most of the other species, on hearing this trawl, clunking and churning along the sea bed, simply swim out of the way, something which is easy for them to do given the low height and limited width.

But yes, they do leave behind "a landscape like a harrowed field" - actually a strip, 14-40 feet wide. In coral or other environmentally sensitive areas, this can be highly damaging, which is why so many of these areas are conservation zones, off-limits to the beamers. On mud flats, they can also be damaging, which is why there are moves to restrict their use in these areas as well.

But, on the wide expanses of sandy sea bed in the Channel and parts of the North Sea, the harrowing effect is beneficial. Like cultivating the land, it stirs up the nutrients, lifts the compacted bed and breaks it up. The result is increased marine life and, in a properly controlled system, increased catches. It is not a zero-sum game.

With this analysis, one can see the game Clover is playing. He elides two entirely different forms of fishing, takes the worst features of both, exaggerates them, and then transposes them into a homely scenario in order to shock the reader and invoke horror and repulsion. It is cheap trick, tawdry and wholly irresponsible.

The facts are actually wholly different. Some time ago, myself and one of the shadow fisheries team, Owen Paterson MP, spent a day in Hull on a basic fishing course, at the flume tank run by Seafish, the fishing industry authority – something I bet Clover has never done.

The flume tank is the maritime equivalent of a wind tunnel and there, from stocks of hundreds of different designs of nets, we saw scale models of different trawls in action, learned how they worked, and in what circumstances they were used.

In that one day, we saw graphic visual demonstrations of that which fishermen had been telling us for years. Commercial fishing nets, are highly scientific, precision tools, the culmination of hundreds of years of experience and investigation, each superbly designed to meet the specific demands of a huge variety of tasks.

With the right nets, and the right rigging, you can catch haddock, and leave the cod alone – or vice versa - even though the two species co-exist in the same marine environment. Flatfish can be separated from round fish, shrimps from fish, and all species can be graded by age and size with infinite flexibility.

The last thing commercial fishermen want is Clover's "tangled mess of writhing or dead creatures… some too small, too mangled, or the wrong species". Time is money, fuel is expensive and boats have to earn their keep in a highly competitive market. Fishermen earn their living – where they are allowed to - by selecting the right fish, at the right grade in the right qualities, delivered in good condition to the market at the right time.

And, contrary to the myth of the "hunter-gatherers", braving the wild, untamed seas, fishermen are harvesters. They work in a highly controlled and managed environment, taking a crop from a closely monitored marine environment. They are bound by rigorous regulations, backed by draconian penalties, and work under constant supervision, both on land and at sea, with every detail of their work recorded, checked and cross-checked.

Herein lies the nub of the issue. Clover would have it that the fishermen are the cowboys of the sea, the problem lying in their rapacious behaviour. Stocks are suffering because, as the weary mantra goes, "there are too many (greedy) fishermen chasing too few fish". "Overfishing" is the cod environmentalists' one and only explanation for all ills.

On the other hand, the reality is that commercial fisheries are highly managed and controlled. To blame the fishermen, at the sharp end, for failures in fishing policy, is akin to blaming the industrious but ill-managed workforce, while the managers upstairs in their offices let their company go to wrack and ruin. If the policy is a mess, it is because the managers haven't got their act together.