Ian Sample, science correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Monday 15 December 2008 17.30 GMT
European fisheries are at risk of widespread collapse if responsibility for setting catch sizes is not given over to an independent body, a leading marine scientist said today.
The warning follows research that reveals EU ministers have consistently ignored scientific advice on catch limits, and agreed quotas up to 140% higher than sustainable levels.
The systematic mismanagement of fisheries was akin to a “doctor assisting the suicide of a patient”, that ultimately “condemns the fishing industry to extinction,” said Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York.
The bleak assessment of the health of Europe’s fisheries comes as EU ministers prepare to agree new quotas later this week.
In the 1970s, three quarters of Europe’s fisheries were in a healthy or slightly at risk state, but today more than half are in danger. Despite scientific advice, which in some cases, such as cod, has called for complete regional bans on fishing, ministers continue to argue for quotas above sustainable levels.
Fish stocks and sustainable catch limits are determined each year by scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), but ministers use this only as a starting point when they meet to decide annual fishing quotas.
Roberts argues that instead of deciding quotas, ministers should only be involved in working how the scientifically-agreed catch limits are divided among member states.
“It’s better to have the decision making independent of politics and independent of industry. If we don’t change our ways we’ll have less and less to catch and we’ll end up eating plankton,” he said.
Research by Roberts’s team at York shows that quotas set by EU ministers over the past 10 years have exceeded limits proposed by scientists by 45% for cod, 140% for hake, 93.6% for prawns and 14% for plaice.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer’s money to do all this research on fish stocks and then ignore it,” Roberts said.
Mike Kaiser, a marine conservationist at the University of Bangor said that some fisheries were beginning to understand the importance of managing fish stocks sustainably, but said the European Commission must take the lead on tackling the issue of dwindling stocks.
“We’ve got to the point now in the UK where we realise that things have got to change. The problem is that’s only one nation. If we are rowing against the tide as a nation it’ll have very little impact,” he said.