The 1957 Treaty of Rome, the rock on which the EU is built, states that
there should be a common policy for fisheries. That’s fundamental, so
don’t kid yourselves that there are any exceptions to the rule. In the
1990s when Norway was jockeying for position on EU membership, there
were no meaningful concessions from Europe on fisheries, not even to
one of the wealthiest countries in the world with its waters rich in
oil as well as fish.
Iceland can’t realistically expect any kind of permanent exemption—for
no other reason than that every other member state with an interest in
fisheries would immediately attempt to block this on the grounds that
they don’t get special treatment, so why should a newcomer?
The concept of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is
that there should be a single umbrella policy on fisheries as there is
on agriculture. In essence, Brussels is the benevolent uncle who keeps
a friendly eye on how a member state manages its fisheries on European
lines. If only it were that simple.
What happens in Greece or Portugal isn’t the same as what goes on in
Holland or Denmark. The primary premise that there should be a level
playing field across the Union just isn’t the case. Over a decade and
more of writing about commercial fisheries, I have yet to hear a
positive opinion about the CFP.
Good ol’ TACs are in the CFP
There’s actually plenty in the CFP that Iceland would find familiar,
such as the concept of everything being managed using the blunt
instrument of Total Allowable Catches (TACs). Quotas, quota trading,
discards, high-grading and misreporting are all things that Icelanders
would find familiar about fisheries in Europe, along with the same
triangle of distrust with fishermen, scientists and administrators at
each corner—and a widening gulf between them.
Across Europe, fisheries have been struggling badly for years and the
CFP is then pilloried as the source of all the fishing industry’s
problems. But to be fair, fishermen in Europe face many of the same
problems as those outside the Union, although the CFP is undoubtedly
part of the mix.
There is mighty little that’s positive about it. Fishermen regard the
CFP as a disaster on legs. The official line from Brussels has been—of
course—that everything is just fine, but the noises from the centre of
things recently indicate that even Brussels privately views its own CFP
as a failure.
Innocence and ignorance in Brussels
The CFP has been with us since the early 1980s and in the intervening
years we have seen cod, hake, sole and a handful of other stocks
supposedly teetering on the brink of extinction. It begs the question
of where all that cash, manpower and effort have gone if the results
aren’t better than that. The reality is that the fisheries is a
marginal industry in European terms. DG Fish, which administers
fisheries, is a small department in a bloated bureaucracy of Byzantine
complexity, stiff with back-door deals and horse-trading, based in an
ivory tower far removed from the practicalities of the industry it
purports to administer.
After all these years, I should be used to it, but I still shudder when
presented with some of the innocence and ignorance that stems from
Earlier this year, EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg announced that
more cutbacks are needed as 80% of stocks are overexploited. On the
other hand, a year ago, an EU policy document (COM(2008) 331) stated
that: “the state of some 57% of stocks is unknown.”
Did I miss something here? Was a stack of European cash injected into
marine research over the last year? Did Brussels suddenly come up with
definitive figures so that the 80% claim can be considered credible?
The heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all measures handed down by Brussels
are alarming, especially taking into account that these people are
dealing with the livelihoods and businesses of predominantly
hard-working, honest individuals and their families across Europe.
What has also become apparent is that DG Fish is increasingly
overshadowed by the more powerful DG Environment. There is even
speculation that DG Fish could be swallowed by its bigger brother with
its very different and far from fisherman-friendly agenda.
Turning a supertanker
The sheer size of the bureaucracy and the entrenched attitudes mean
that altering the course of policy is akin to trying to turn a
supertanker. We have had cod, hake and sole in particular on the list
of threatened fish stocks for years. Cod in particular has been used as
the rationale for some dramatic cuts in fishing effort and fishing
fleet size, even though fishermen have been reporting for some years
that cod are increasingly abundant. This year, finally, there’s a cod
quota increase. Hake is up and sole looks to have increased as well.
All well and good, and we can argue endlessly over whether cutting
fishing effort has achieved this or if these are natural cycles that
would have occurred anyway. But the damage has been done; jobs have
gone, communities have been devastated and businesses have disappeared.
I can predict that within a year or three, the fleet that’s left will
not be able to catch its quotas on some species, but will still be
subject to ludicrous outdated restrictions on both quotas and
So what’s in it for Iceland?
Much of what you’ve gotten used to already is a TAC based system, in
which discards and incorrect reporting are an inevitable by-product.
On the other hand, ownership of fishing companies would become open to
anyone and there would undoubtedly be foreign investors with healthy
chequebooks doing the rounds. I say “would be,” but I know for a fact
that they’ve already been spying out the land. Who knows? Deals may
already have been struck. Sooner or later a proportion of Iceland’s
seafood industry would be in foreign hands.
Quota hopping, the use of different flags and brass-plate companies,
would become a reality. This is certainly not new to some Icelandic
operators who already run vessels under foreign flags, primarily to
obtain quotas or fishing rights in particular areas, but there would be
the prospect of Iceland being on the receiving end of this process
As an EU member, Iceland would no longer be in charge of its own
resources and would be overridden by Brussels. The Icelandic Ministry
of Fisheries and the Marine Research Institute could be in full
agreement that a 200,000 tonne cod quota is what’s justified, but if
Brussels says it should be half that amount, that’s what it would
be—and no arguments.
Some would argue that it’s too high a price to pay to have a country’s
primary industry under the ultimate control of what can be seen as a
faceless, distant bureaucracy that can also be seen as neither
sympathetic nor competent.
On the positive side, while the 2002 CFP review largely rubber-stamped
a further ten years of pain, another review is now in progress for
2012. We can’t expect miracles, but hopefully someone will see the
light and a little common sense can be used to bring the CFP into line
with reality—as it would be too much to hope that it could simply be
scrapped and control handed back to member states. But for Iceland, the
contents of that 2012 review should be a vital factor in the larger
Quentin Bates worked as a fisherman on a variety of Icelandic and
British fishing vessels before turning to journalism 15 years ago. He
currently writes mostly technical material for Fishing News