Environmental groups taking ‘simplistic approach’ to overfishing, study says

Many fishermen find it harder to make a living because of regulations, says expert

A “simplistic” interpretation of overfishing is unfairly placing all blame on fishermen, a senior geographer has said.

Many fishermen are finding it harder and harder to make a living between environmental regulations and the pressures of the global seafood market, and are caught in a "pincer" between these competing demands, said Prof Patrick Bresnihan, assistant professor of geography at Trinity College Dublin.

He said there was now “widespread agreement that fish stocks are severely depleted and fishing activity must be limited”.

“The recent reform of the European Common Fisheries Policy – in 2014 – has reoriented fisheries policy towards the conservation of fish stocks, and this has understandably been celebrated by environmental campaigners, non-governmental organisations and members of the wider public.


“But the problem with this emphasis on conserving fish stocks is that it can reproduce simplistic narratives about resource depletion and environmental degradation more generally.

“In this understanding, overfishing is understood to be the result of self-interested fishermen exploiting limited fish stocks.”

However Prof Bresnihan said, “this kind of explanation ignores the uneven development of industrial-scale fishing, the neoliberal focus and pressures of a globalised seafood market”.

A new book, Transforming the Fisheries, Neoliberalism, Nature and the Commons, written by the geographer and published by University of Nebraska Press, is based on his PhD and analyses the impact of what he terms "this push towards this industrial scale of activity and new types of catching technology since the second World War".

Bigger boats

“The growth of global seafood markets, the extension of large bank loans to fishermen to buy bigger boats is all aimed at extracting more fish, and it is too simplistic then to blame the fishermen if things go wrong,” Prof Bresnihan explained.

“It also fails to recognise that fishermen are not all the same – they interact with and use the marine environment in different ways,” the professor said.

The Irish coastline has many examples of these differences.

In north Mayo, Pat O’Donnell runs a fleet of six boats under 15 metres with his sons Jonathan and Patrick.

The O'Donnells have developed a niche industry in crab and lobsters, flown fresh to markets in France and Spain.

“The reality when it comes to fishery regulations is that the weather is our environmental control,” Mr O’Donnell said.


Galway chef Michael O’Meara agreed that “overfishing” was a much misunderstood term.

He said he believed “over-regulation” could “break the link between a coastal community and the ‘commons’ it protects”.

Mr O'Meara, who said that there was "virtually nothing" one cannot eat from the sea, has had his recent publication, Sea Gastronomy, shortlisted for this year's Gourmand World Cookbook Awards – nicknamed the "Booker" for foodies.

Meanwhile, Bord Bia is co-ordinating participation by 19 Irish seafood companies this week in the Seafood Expo Global in Brussels.

Irish seafood was exported to more than 70 markets last year, with a total value of €570 million, an increase of 77 per cent since 2009, the food board says.

Atlantic, a documentary on resource issues by film-maker Risteard Ó Dómhnaill, is due to open in the Irish Film Institute in Dublin tomorrow and in Galway's Eye Cinema on Saturday.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times