Commons, a Model for Managing Natural Resources

Overcapacity and Fishing Rights

A Response to the European Commission’s Green Book on fisheries

, by Pêche et Développement , LE SANN Alain

In order to address the problems of overfishing and fisheries management, the European Commission intends to implement a policy of "modernisation" of the sector, based on the privatisation of resources, at the detriment of artisan fishermen and their collective rights.

The European Commission believes that addressing the issue of overcapacity is the key to resolving the fisheries crisis. It has thus proposed to solve the problem by establishing a free-market ITQ (Individual Transferable Quotas) system.

Such an approach comes across as surreal when many European fishing ports have already been abandoned, or seem close to such a fate with their ageing bosses and boats (one example is the town of Île d’Houat, which had over 45 fishing boats 20 years ago, now has 16 and will probably have less than 5 in 5 years).

This approach raises a fundamental question, which the Commission as well as most decision-makers refuse to acknowledge: the question of fishermen’s rights as workers and users of “fishing territories” – we favour this term over “fishing zones”, as it indicates a real appropriation by fishermen, who no longer have access to other fishing zones.

The fundamental theory which underpins the Commission’s approach and that of the majority of scientists is the theory of “the tragedy of the commons” outlined by Hardin. This theory asserts that the cause of overfishing and overinvestment problems in the scramble for fish lies in the absence of private property rights for accessing the resource. It is precisely this sort of idea that justified the appropriation of communal lands through enclosures by prominent landowners from the 15th to the 18th Centuries. This gigantic expropriation process enabled the expulsion of thousands of peasants, leaving them without any rights or property.

A similar process is unfolding today, with the blessing of political authorities. Powerful private interests, both in the industrial fishing sector and in many others (wind energy, extractive industries, oil, aquaculture, boating, environmental conservation, etc.), are striving to appropriate the sea for themselves, arguing that the economic benefit of their activities is significantly superior to that of mere fishing.

Thus the “tragedy of the commons” ideology paves the way for the exclusion of a large number of fishermen from their traditional activity, with no recognition of their rights. Fishing is presented as a destructive activity, whose fate is to be replaced by aquaculture. A very restrictive marine environment law is becoming more and more widespread, both locally and internationally. This restrictive environmental law is being imposed on fishermen without any discussion with them; they haven’t participated in its drafting nor have they obtained any legal recognition of their collective use rights over territories and resources which they have used and often managed for decades, if not centuries (as with the prud’homies in the Mediterranean ports).

Believers in the “tragedy of the commons” deny the ability of fishermen to manage efficiently and sustainably the common territories and resources over which their collective rights are recognised. According to them, the individualisation and commodification of rights is the only solution to bad management and overexploitation. There are, however, numerous examples, in particular along the coasts, of common management of common resources, with controlled access, where fishermen have autonomy and authority to enforce rules. But even these examples of collective good management are undermined by new investors in the maritime frontier, because these fishermen often have no legal protection, as illustrated by the creation of wind farms right in the heart of scallop bed zones.

We therefore believe that prior to any reform of the European Common Fisheries Policy, there should be legal recognition of the collective use rights of fishermen, and priority given to the food harvesting functions of the sea. Conversely, these rights would also involve duties and responsibilities, in terms of good management, environmental protection, transparency and equity. Only on these terms can there be any discussion regarding the development of new functions or activities in fishing territories, and regarding introducing fishing restrictions. Such a recognition would be necessary, of course, all along the coastal strip, as well as throughout all fishing territories in the countries’ Exclusive Economic Zone. Different types of fishing should, however, be differentiated between, and a stronger emphasis put on preserving coastal activities.

As for overcapacity, although it has been an obvious and very real problem in the past, it is important today to assess it in all its aspects, for each fishery, each territory and each type of fishing, taking into account current trends. It is important to find out if there are too many fishermen, too many boats or too much fishing. For the European Commission, there’s too much of everything. For us, there are not many fishermen, and there is a risk that there won’t be enough in the near future, if it’s is not already the case. Already there aren’t young fishermen. Several countries are already filling the gap with migrants from the South, often under shocking conditions. The priority should therefore be to preserve jobs where needed by means of redeployments among fisheries. It is much harder to rebuild living fishermen communities capable of transmitting their knowledge and experience than it is to rebuild fish stocks.

Overcapacity is a reality, but one must differentiate between fisheries, preserve artisan fishing in all its diversity, particularly small-scale fishing, which has a low impact on resources and offers good job opportunities. It is also important to take into account the significant reduction in capacity that has been observed since the early 1990’s, as well as that which is taking place within the present Fleet retirement plan, the effects of which statistics do not yet reflect. Many ports have already seen the majority, if not the totality, of their fishing fleet disappear. It is true that the fishing effort and its efficiency have not experienced an equivalent reduction.

However, in the majority of cases, the planned continuation of the destruction of boats appears to reflect a wish to put an end to all fishing activity. It is interpreted as such by fishermen, who have little faith left in the future. Although the fishing fleet has been reduced to less than 50% of its past level, scientists, environmental NGOs and the European Commission are talking of a further reduction of 40%, 50%, even two thirds!

With such prospects, it is impossible to ensure the continued existence of fishing communities and the renewal of boats and fishermen. The regulation of the fishing effort must therefore use other means, those which fishermen have been advocating for a long time: biological rest periods, temporary closures, technical measures, etc.

We must also move from a system based on the scrapping of boats to one based on transmitting quality, used fishing boats to young people. Most of all, we must also start building new boats adapted to our current challenges and objectives, prioritising traditional fishing in all its diversity throughout different fishing territories. Regarding the pace of reform, it must be remembered that fishing and its management are first and foremost a question of men and women rather than just fish.

The great philosopher, Jacques Ellul, who inspired a humanist ecological movement, wrote in 1980: “Things, life, humans: all these are created by the random choices made by the very beings concerned, by successive decisions made by those in question, and the latter may appear to follow strange paths, but a slow pace is necessary for reaching maturity. All this must be invented step by step, with no other preconceived ideas than those originating in past experiences from which we have learnt our lessons.” It’s worth thinking about.