At the end of every year, when European Union fisheries ministers meet the European Commission in Brussels to settle catch quotas for the following 12 months, environmental NGOs [non-governmental organisations] will sometimes send idealistic youngsters out into the cold and rain to wave banners about. It has become something of a tradition, and the messages are always the same. Stop overfishing! The seas are dead! Save the cod!
Interestingly, the representatives of these same organisations – not the youngsters, of course, but the corporate-funded lobbyists that tell them what to do – will have spent many of the preceding months agreeing with the fishing industry in meetings with government and the EC that increased catches are scientifically warranted. They could hardly do otherwise, knowing as they do that the amount of cod in the North Sea (measured by what we call the “spawning stock biomass”) has more than tripled since 2006, that there is four times as much haddock out there than there was in the early 1990s, that the stock of plaice is larger than it has been for at least 50 years, and so on. And they will readily accept in private that none of Scotland’s key commercial stocks are remotely in danger of extinction.
Yes, you could have made a decent case for overfishing 20 years ago, when the Scottish fishing fleet was significantly bigger than it is now and many of the now-recovered stocks were in a poor state. The youngsters standing in the rain on a couple of December days each year were born a generation too late: they are fighting yesterday’s battles, and their banners belong in the same museums as those urging former US president Jimmy Carter to leave his cruise missiles at home.
So why the double-talk, not from the troops outside but from their bosses on the inside, the highly intelligent activists who know all too well that places like the North Sea are not devoid of fish but a tremendous success story? Why fuel the myth (at least in public) that overfishing is rife, and that fisheries-dependent communities like Shetland are on the brink of starvation? Do they really believe that record landings in Peterhead, Lerwick and Scalloway are pretend fish? If so, the buyers paying top prices for superb-quality product ought to be told.
In some ways, anti-fishing campaigners are the victims of their own success. Responding to legitimate concern in the 1980s and 1990s from the public and the fishing industry itself over the future of our fish stocks, they built up very large organisations, with staffing levels to match.
The problem is what they should do once action is taken and stocks recover, especially when that process has been as rapid as it has in Scottish waters.
Like any other business – and they are businesses, make no mistake – they have to cover their costs, and it is a lot easier to raise money for your cause by screaming impending catastrophe than by saying everything is actually working out pretty well, thank you.
Their predicament is only worsened by the fact that many have accepted large donations from multinational conglomerates, from oil companies to banks. Apart from undermining their own credibility, this has effectively reduced the number of targets they can pick on.
Hence the remarkable silence from environmentalists over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for example, or marine aggregate dredging. Neither damages the environment, apparently, or at least not enough to warrant diverting attention from putting Scottish fishing boats out of business.
The irony is not lost on the skippers and crews that have weathered the shake-out of the past decade or so and should now be benefiting from our robust and diverse fish stocks. It seems that the better the situation gets out there on the fishing grounds, the more the anti-fishing brigade claims “overfishing” and general meltdown.
But there is a certain inevitability about it, driven not by fact and fiction but by profit and loss back at corporate HQ, and perhaps we should not be surprised.
Denial of the patently obvious has its limits, however, and the foot soldiers out in the rain will need some other banners this December.
• Simon Collins is executive officer at the Shetland Fishermen’s Association www.shetlandfishermen.com