A brief history of overfishing, recent attempts at controlling it, together with thoughts on stock conservation and capitalism
In the scheme of things, the setting of fishing quotas has been a relatively recent development. Iceland was a forerunner, responding to the simultaneous collapse of three herring stocks in 1969. Norway and the European Economic Community followed suit.
Essentially quota systems break down into three basic levels:
1. The Total Allowable Catch (TAC) decided upon for a particular species in a fishery area;
2. The proportion of this allocated to each nation participating in a particular fishery (whether they have access by right or are fishing under licence);
3. The allocation of national quotas to fish producers and/or individual vessels.
The regulation of herring fishing goes back to the Skåne fishery in the Baltic, which flourished between the C12th and C15th. Controlled by the German Hanse for much of that time, fishing was not allowed to begin until the Motbok – a constantly growing list of rules – was read out to the representatives of the assembled fleet.
Fishermen’s evasion of regulations has as long a history.
Drift nets are passive – they hang in the water and the herring, rising to feed, move up into them. An appropriate mesh size pretty much ensures only mature herrings are caught. Regulation is straightforward, even if, historically, sustainability has been less of a driver than quality control.
Sustainability became a focus with the advent of herring trawling – initially with the ring netters of Tarbert on Loch Fyne in the 1840s. The ring net actively surrounded the shoals. The drift netters further up the loch foresaw the end of their way of life and briefly managed to have the technology banned, but it’s always hard to argue against increased efficiency.
The technology of purse seine trawling was developed in the USA in the 1820s, and spread from there. It began to be used extensively for herring fishing in the North Sea from the mid C19th onwards, although it was largely resisted by the British fleet.
In 1902 the skipper of Strathnaver, the first boat to bring trawled herring into Wick was stoned by protestors. They identified a threat in overfishing to community livelihoods, but in this they were just continuing the protests and direct action of crofter fishermen on Scotland’s west coast as ring netting spread.
As the C20th progressed, sail gave way to steam, steam to diesel. The size of boats increased. Shoal locating technology developed. Boats with ever larger capacities could locate and completely surround shoals with devastating accuracy.
The problem has been compounded by the trawlers fishing for the bottom feeding species such as cod and haddock, their beams and net weights dragged across sensitive herring spawning grounds. The dumping of fly ash over inshore spawning grounds hasn’t helped.
Purse seining or pursing catches juveniles and mature herring without discrimination – especially in mixed grounds like the Southern North Sea. It can damage fairly high proportions of the catch. It catches too much for the market.
Norway developed a canning industry in the late C19th, juvenile herrings and sprats sold as sardines. But the development of fish oil and fishmeal factories provided a market for all surpluses, solving all the economic problems – apart from sustainability.
The sense that things were going seriously wrong was widespread even in the 1930s and there was an acceleration in scientific research. World War II gave the herrings of the North Sea a bit of respite but the 1950s and 1960s saw catastrophic population collapses, both there and in the Icelandic fishery.
The Appliance of Science
Most commercially attractive fish live in the seas between nations. Recognition that the solution to overfishing required international collaboration goes back to the late C19th. The world’s oldest intergovernmental science organisation, The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), was established in 1902.
North Sea herring fishing was approaching its peak and not a main focus for concern, but in 1909 Friedrich Heincke, whose Naturgeschichte des Herings (1898) had introduced racial theory to the herring world, presented a paper on plaice which considered protective legislation. Just before World War I this led to a ban on landing juvenile plaice.
Following a British unilateral decision to enforce trawl net mesh sizes, an Overfishing Conference in London in 1936 was the first in a series of international considerations of the issue, which even continued during World War II.
A Standing Advisory Committee on Overfishing was set up in 1947. Still focused on demersal fish populations, it took several years to extend the remit to including the pelagic fisheries. The standing committee evolved, but, by the time the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) was established in 1980, North Sea herring populations had already collapsed.
Science and Politics
Founding members of the European Economic Community, Belgium, France and the Netherlands were participants in the Overfishing Conferences, although they weren’t early ratifiers of the 1946 convention that set up the original Standing Advisory Committee.
The Common Market seems to have moved a tad faster in 1970, when Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway were about to apply to join.
With Denmark then including Greenland, the hopeful applicant nations between them controlled the major fishing grounds. With only hours to go before their applications were received, EEC Council Regulation 2141/70 was adopted, giving member states equal access to all fishing waters.
It was a deal breaker for Norway. And Greenland, separating itself from Denmark, left in 1985.
With its accession in 1972, the UK became part of the joint management system that became the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 1983. Following the example of Iceland, in 1976, the EEC extended fishing limits to 200 nautical miles (or halfway between its waters and those of, say, Norway.
Essentially, scientists (ICES / NEAFC) propose a species / fishing area Total Allowable Catch. Politicians then dispose. Sometimes they use their vast knowledge of biomass science to increase the figure the scientists have proposed.
The Development of Quotas
Again, following the lead established by Iceland, the prime method initiated to address overfishing was to establish quotas. The politically arbitrated TAC is split between the nations actively involved.
How each nation allocates its quotas is a matter for national governments.
As with its approach to farming, France tends to pay attention to the CFP’s call to allocate with a view to concerns around environmental impact and fishing communities. Most Northern European countries, however, maintain their touching trust in capitalism and the market.
Predictably, the UK pays the least attention to the CFP’s call, dishing out its quotas to a handful of extremely wealthy fish producers in England and a handful in Scotland.
An added complication is that quota holders are then free to sell their allocations to others. According to a 2018 article in The Guardian by John Lichfield, Small, coastal boats under 10 metres, which make up 77% of the English fleet, currently have the right to catch 3% of the total English catch of quota-controlled fish such as cod, haddock, plaice, sole, herring and mackerel. One super-trawler, British-flagged but ultimately Dutch-owned, has the right to catch 94% of the English herring quota in the Atlantic and North Sea.
Which is why English fishmongers rely on small inshore populations and by-catch for their occasional herring displays. Which is why most English kippers and bloaters are made with Norwegian herrings.
The UK government, in the spirit of the laissez-faire approach of pre-Stuart English kings and queens, has also been fairly tolerant of its big business herring quota holders’ misdemeanours.
There was no objection to English companies selling their quota to the Dutch. And none of the Scottish companies lost their quotas as a result of the Black Fish Scandal of the early 2000s, when vast quantities of over-quota herring and mackerel were funnelled down secret pipelines.
Sustainability and Capitalism
There has always been some tension between the assessments of the scientists and those of the fishermen, who tend to argue that, from their experience, stocks are in a better state than the recommended TAC suggests.
The scientists counter-argue that their assessments are based on data from quite wide areas, whereas the fishermen go directly to those locations where the maximum fish numbers traditionally concentrate.
But the trouble with quotas is that they are based on landings. Fishermen feel encouraged to catch more, select what they want and discard the rest, maximising profits within the quota allocation. A scary 40% of the catch can be discarded and some suggest this is an underestimate.
Norway banned discards in 1987 – it can be done. Iceland adopts an Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system, which reduces discards by allowing a trade in species allocations between quota holders. It doesn’t eliminate them though.
Decommissioning of fishing boats has been a way of reducing overcapacity in the fleet. Reducing the number of days vessels can be at sea created an outcry when it was introduced in the European Union and when the days were further reduced. More recently it has been advocated by some anti-EU fishermen as a way of getting rid of quotas altogether.
The fundamental problem centres on the accuracy of the science and the honesty of capitalism. The science is getting better all the time, of course.
Recovering after the ban on North Sea herring fishing in the late 70s, declining and recovering again after the excessive juvenile by-catch of industrial trawlers in the 90s, herring is now being recommended as a sustainable fish we should be eating.
It would be great to have the chance, I say…
Some populations haven’t recovered, but most have. The Marine Stewardship Council has a helpful Track a Fishery page on its website. We are only talking comparative health – the great shoals of the C19th haven’t made a comeback, no matter how spectacular Blue Planet footage might seem. The case remains, not just for tight regulation but for ever-smarter regulation.
It would be good to see the use of quota allocations to prioritise smaller scale, sustainable fishing methods – drift netting still plays a role in some fisheries. Marine reserves, where destructive fishing can be excluded, have been proven successful, although with some key herring populations, these would have to be developed around migration paths.
The technologies of surveillance are so pervasive on land, it shouldn’t be difficult to install the appropriate equipment on all fishing vessels over a certain size – precisely monitoring catches.
A more radical solution might be to tie fishery incomes to the demonstrable sustainability of particular stocks. A variation on tying farm incomes to conservation outputs – turning poachers into gamekeepers, this could perhaps encourage the culture change in fishing that is certainly visible in the thinking of an increasing number of small scale fishing organisations.
The warming of the oceans is only going to increase the need for long term solutions.