It’s just a net waste to ignore fishermen

Picture: PAPicture: PA
Picture: PA
Policy makers need to tap into fishers’ expertise, says Mike Park

Grown-up policy-making requires significant input from those closest to the issue at hand. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?.

But you would be surprised at how often key stakeholders, to use the bureaucrats’ beloved terminology, are kept out of the loop, especially by the European Commission.

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When it comes to my own industry, the politicians, officials and green lobbyists who have largely dictated fisheries policy over the past decade still view us (I’m borrowing this metaphor from our farming friends) as the fox in the hen house, that is, untrustworthy.

This is despite the fact that these individuals are so far removed – both physically and mentally – from the lives of those who go to sea that they have little or no knowledge of fishing. (Had they made an effort to understand the sector better, they would be aware of the huge, practically very effective steps taken by fishermen to improve sustainability, from changes in types of gear to more efficient boat engines.)

So you can imagine how heartened I was to hear everyone participating in a recent seminar in Barcelona, including the policy makers, saying that sustainable fisheries can only be achieved with the involvement of fishers in science and management.

The meeting was hosted by GAP2, a European Commission-funded body that brings together fishers, scientists, policy makers and environmental NGOs to work together towards that goal of sustainable fisheries.

The rhetoric now needs to be backed up with action.

One of the most significant shifts in attitude seems to have taken place within Ices, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, whose scientific effort is used as the basis for calculating how much European fishermen can catch on an annual basis.

Ices scientists understand that every fishing vessel is also a research platform. They appear to feel less threatened by allowing fishers to observe and comment on approaches and output.

This is quite right, as recent academic research has demonstrated that fishermen are just as good, if not better, than scientists at measuring certain stocks. And the GAP2 project has shown us that as well as providing critical information, fishers are able to assist in creating sensible policy that is respected and understood.

The locked door approach, adopted in the past by both the European Commission and ICES, which, frankly, led to the collapse of many stocks and precipitated what can only be described as anarchic behaviour in many of Europe’s fleets, is outmoded. An entirely new approach is required, and soon.

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Many observers view recent changes, such as co-decision making between the European Parliament and the European Council on regulatory matters and the move toward regionalisation, as significant steps in the right direction.

However, there is clearly a chasm between gifting a share of decision making to 751 elected individuals who have little or no knowledge of fishing and delivering sensible policy.

Previously, this gap was filled by the green lobby which, while in reality just as ignorant about fishing, was able to sound credible.

In a mature policy environment that is just not acceptable. The GAP2 model must be rolled out across fisheries regulation.

The dream of fishers to be embedded in policy making should have been realised to some degree with the introduction of regionalisation through reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, where policy making was to be detached downstream to member states in defined sea basins such as the North Sea.

This has hit the buffers because it would seem that by handing power to member states, the Commission has created monsters which appear incapable of taking advice from anyone, including the very advisory councils which were set up through previous reform to give the fishing sector a voice.You couldn’t make it up.

GAP2 provides a glimmer of hope. The industry’s biggest challenge will be to grab the moment, capture the current enthusiasm of fishers to be involved and use that to deliver long lasting and meaningful change.

Mike Park is chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association,

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