HEAD TO HEAD: The current system is crude, wasteful and unfair, and threatens the future of our coastal communities, argues Lorcán Ó Cinneide.
YES: THERE ARE good reasons to have quotas on landings of fish. It is vital to ensure the biological sustainability of fish stocks and to rebuild stocks where necessary, where the resource is mobile and shared among many players. This is especially true today, with advances in fish-finding and catching technologies which have a real capacity to threaten stocks. But the current system of management, including quotas, in the EU and here in Ireland needs radical change.
Quotas form one part of a highly complex fisheries management system. Fleet size is controlled in the EU, although by rather crude and ineffective measures of vessel size. The EU also imposes controls on fishing effort - the number of days vessels can fish - in some fisheries. A series of ad-hoc closures of fishing grounds on a permanent or seasonal basis, variously motivated by fish conservation or biodiversity protection, have grown up in recent years. So called "technical measures" - controls on net design and size - are also employed. All these measures currently constitute part of an impossible and often counterproductive maze of regulation introduced over time on a haphazard basis.
Irish fishermen currently find themselves in deep financial trouble due to the cost of fuel, which has also ignited resentment at the unfairness of many aspects of current management systems, including quotas. They are deeply disillusioned as a result.
Most fishermen fully accept the need to properly manage stocks. It is in their own interests in fact that stocks be sustained.
However, there are a number of features of the current quota system which militate against its effectiveness or acceptability.
On an international level, the national share of annual fish quotas in waters around Ireland means, for example, that France is entitled to 42 per cent of the whitefish quotas around Ireland and Ireland itself 15 per cent. That drives Irish fishermen daft. This share-out of the cake has, however, been enshrined in EU law for many years, and no other country is likely to give up quota share for Ireland. Changing it is not a realistic short-term objective. There is, however, a great deal that can be done to address other key issues.
There is a low level of confidence in the scientific analysis in estimating and understanding stock trends and sizes. The science is absolutely crucial, and needs to be vastly improved. The establishment of an industry/science partnership here in Ireland to address this issue is a welcome recent development. The current quota system does not cater for mixed fisheries where a number of species are caught together, leading to large-scale discarding of fish.
If in a prawn fishery, for example, a vessel catches both prawns, for which it has quota available, and cod, as a by-catch for which it has no quota. The current regulations require that the marketable cod be discarded, which is crazy on economic grounds and a sinful waste of the finest food.
There is a strong perception among Irish fishermen that quotas and other regulations are not controlled in some EU countries, as they are in Ireland. However unpalatable the regime fishermen have to contend with, it would be some consolation if it were to be evenly applied in all EU countries.
One advantage of catch limits should be that product prices increase if supply is restricted. But the reverse is the case in fishing terms. Because of trade liberalisation, exchange rate fluctuations and better transport, cheap imports from outside the EU have flooded our markets.
In many cases these fisheries outside the EU are not subject to the same controls or management. While imports will always be necessary to meet the growing demand for fish, it galls people in the fishing industry that non-EU interests seem to be the main short-term beneficiaries of our current misery.
It is easy to blame the EU for everything, but in reality there is much we could do domestically to improve how we in Ireland manage the quota system internally. The current monthly quota system does not maximise the economic benefit of available quotas, however paltry.
Some realities are already being faced: the need for decommissioning part of the fleet to enable the remainder to have a chance of viability is one important step.
This in fact needs to be extended further to meet the changed economics facing the sector since decommissioning was planned.
Above all, as was stated by this newspaper some weeks ago, the Government owes to the fishing industry the resources - even in straitened times - and commitment in political terms to tackling all the EU and domestic issues, in order to maintain the fabric of coastal communities and to utilise one of our most valuable natural resources.
• Lorcán Ó Cinneideis chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and a director of the Federation of Irish Fishermen
NO: The current quotas are actually much higher than scientists recommend. Without severe restrictions, the marine ecosystem will collapse and there will be no fish for anyone, argues Tony Lowes.
THE LAST UK Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, Ben Bradshaw, called the conservation of the marine environment "the second biggest environmental challenge the world faces after climate change".
Pollution, mineral extraction, construction and global warming all contribute. But the greatest impact on marine ecosystems is caused by the annual removal of more than 100 million tonnes of fish and shellfish.
A significantly under-reported EU policy report last month said 88 per cent of community fish stocks are now overexploited - compared to 80 per cent at this time last year. The same report said the commission would be seeking "deeper than usual cuts" in the 2009 fishing quotas.
It's not solely that humans have depleted the fish population. As Nicola Beaumont of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory put it: "The oceans have all these moving parts and if you start removing parts, you get a breakdown." We have altered oceanic ecosystems over vast regions. Large oxygen-depleted dead zones are appearing in the open seas. Toxic algal blooms contaminate sea-life in once productive inshore waters.
And it's not just the fish that are vanishing. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [ RSPB] recently reported that, at their reserve on Shetland Island, guillemots' and kittiwakes' eggs have been left abandoned on the cliffs as parent birds spend more time at sea in the search for food. Our own Marine Institute, whose annual Stock Book presents the biological recommendations to the Minister for the EU quota bargaining, makes the message very clear: "The closure of the fisheries for the species at risk provides the highest probability of recovery for these species and is the only advice possible in the context of the precautionary approach."
In recent times, quotas have always been set up to 15-30 per cent higher than is recommended. The scientific advice proposed 25 per cent cuts in the whitefish quota for 2008. A 16 per cent cut in the cod quota was proposed. Neither were implemented.
By-catches - fish caught that are not in the quota - are an increasingly publicised problem, as stocks dwindle. By-catches can run to 60 per cent of a haul. The commission brought forth many proposals last year which have been largely ignored or shunted into pilot schemes.
The fishermen's proposal to pay themselves for by-catches with windfall profits donated to charity suggests they are still in denial.
The methods of fishing, as much as the intensity, are critical. The use of certain gear is devastating. Pair trawlers - giant nets slung between two boats - used by French, Spanish, and Irish fishermen are responsible for hundreds of dolphin mortalities a year.
Bottom trawling devastates deep-sea habitats. Ireland's designation of coral reefs under the Habitats Directive is to be greatly welcomed. But it is a nature conservation initiative - not part of fisheries management.
While Ireland lobbies against foreign, illegal, unreported landings that are cutting prices, in 2005 two large Irish trawlers were apprehended unloading a huge catch of mackerel into a fleet of 17 lorries waiting at a west of Ireland quayside. Each lorry was driven by three people in sequence to break the chain of evidence and make prosecution impossible. Irish vessels landed more than 40,000 tons of mackerel through secret pipes under the quays at two Scottish ports between 2001 and 2005, resulting in cuts in Ireland's quota.
A 2007 EU Court of Auditors report confirmed that quotas are "not properly monitored" and illegal fishing only "lightly punished". Because quota enforcement is so difficult, "no take" areas are seen as a way forward. In these areas fishing is completely prohibited. Fishing on the edges of the "no take" areas provides sustainable catches.
Long-term recovery plans are also essential. In some cases, fish numbers are actually increasing thanks to effective plans. Both the Bay of Biscay sole and North Sea haddock quotas can now be increased by up to 25 per cent.
At the Johannesburg World Summit in 2002 all nations committed to 30 per cent of the world's oceans being designated as Marine Protection Areas (MPAs). So far the total is 0.5 per cent. And MPAs can produce a turn-around surprisingly quickly. Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch Ireland, who organised a conference on MPAs in the EU offices in Dublin last year, says MPAs, if carefully chosen with local fishermen, "can see present catches exceeded in as little as three years".
Again and again the Irish authorities have allowed fishermen to blame the European Commission for the worsening situation. The fishermen's No vote was their reward in this cynical game. At the moment we have no idea where the fish we buy is coming from, or whether it is harvested sustainably. Until scientifically supported quotas are enforced, take the precautionary principle and don't buy the fish - or there will be no fish to buy.
• Tony Lowesis co-director of Friends of the Irish Environment.