The past few days have seen a couple of pretty important meetings in Spain about the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (the CFP). You might not have seen much coverage, which isn't that surprising when there's an election going on, nor when you appreciate that very few people know what CFP stands for. Amongst fishy circles, the acronym is often re-interpreted, but I'm too polite to say what the F would stand for.
The CFP is the agreement under which Europe's fish stocks, and hence ocean ecosystems, are managed as one resource. On paper it makes sense, fish don't respect national boundaries after all. But in practice, very few people have much faith in the CFP, and it's usually seen as an obstacle or an excuse. It stops governments taking effective unilateral action to protect species like dolphins, and it leads to fishermen claiming that they 'have to' chuck away tonnes of fish as bycatch.
Europe's waters of course have been fished rampantly for centuries. You could say that Europe invented overfishing. And things haven't improved much. At present nine out of 10 EU fish stocks are overfished. Hardly a shining example to anyone.
So we've been in Spain, letting the fisheries ministers and managers know that the current process to reform the CFP has to deliver some real change. Our colleagues in our Spanish office have just released a damning report showing how Spain, currently holding the EU presidency, is the worst offender, gobbling up EU subsidies and exporting destructive fishing around the globe.
To get an idea of just what we've done to European fish stocks though, we need to look back further than the CFP and the EU, to historical levels of fish and fishing. In a shocking new report, Professor Callum Roberts of York University and the Marine Conservation Society show just how bad things are (Callum has already told the global tale of oceanic over-exploitation in his book, The Unnatural History of the Sea).
The historical context outlined in Roberts' report puts the annual haggling over infinitesimal rises in stocks into stark perspective. The graphs show that for many species we are just bumping along the bottom, and that we are nowhere near to letting fish stocks recover to historical level. Some may well have gone for good. The bluefin tuna and oyster beds in the North Sea have been fished out, and dredged up respectively. But for others, there may well still be hope.
To do that we need not just reform, but radical reform. Healthy fish stocks can only exist as part of healthy ocean ecosystems. We need to fish less, and fish better, but crucially we need to build in some protection and common-sense too. That means a network of protected areas off-limits to fishing, and stopping the more wasteful and destructive methods.
All of that means we need not just well-meaning words, but real action from Europe. It's not good enough to tweak the CFP text then shrug hopelessly as nations exploit loopholes and do whatever they can to carry on business as usual. And it's certainly unjustifiable to be subsidizing the ongoing pillage of our shared seas.
Expect to hear much more about the CFP in the months to come.