This weekend, an unprecedented meeting took place in Brussels. At first glance it might not seem like much of a big deal - a bunch of fishermen from across Europe getting together in the EU capital . But this was different.
The fishers (men and women) were from nine different countries, and represent the small-scale, low-impact sector of the fishing industry, whose interests are currently shut out of the decision making in Brussels, and all-too-often in their own countries too.
This congress was, as far as we know, the most extensive of its kind, to bring together the fishers Greenpeace has been working with across Europe. The congress was deliberately held on a weekend to try and allow the fishers to come together, without having to take too much time away from work. All too often, they simply can’t afford to take time off to represent themselves.
Belgian, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Polish, Spanish and British fishers came together in a unique opportunity to understand each other, and to pull together in presenting a loud, united voice straight to the heart of EU decision making. The UK was well represented with nine fishermen from the ‘under-10’ sector, including a few faces who are now famous from their starring roles in our film The Last Fishermen or our Be A Fisherman’s Friend campaign.
Over a busy day, dozens of participants struggled through the unfamiliar world of simultaneous interpretation to share their views, their worries, and their ideas.
The overwhelming feeling was what we had suspected all along : that these fishers had much more in common with each other than they had to disagree on. They are underrepresented, and let down by the current systems in their own countries, and at an EU level.
The Greenpeace campaigners in the room, some of us pretty long in the tooth, felt genuinely honoured to have been able to facilitate this gathering. And we ended the day hopeful that this would lead to much better representation and a fairer deal for coastal communities, low-impact methods of fishing, and, ultimately, Europe’s seas.
Putting aside differing priorities, the assembled fishermen agreed on a common declaration, including demands that the present reform of Europe’s fish law must
- Grant the right to fish to those who fish sustainably
- Reduce fleet overcapacity where it exists, while preserving jobs in artisanal, low impact fisheries;
- End harmful subsidies and unsustainable and destructive practices;
- Restore the health of our seas in Europe and the rest of the world.
This declaration, on behalf of the small-scale fishermen across the EU will now be presented to Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats.
And there’s more. This weekend’s meeting also saw a commitment to take this idea forward and build on the strength of the small (fishing) guys working together. So hopefully there are bigger and better things to come.
Ultimately it’s up to us as countries and citizens to decide how we want our seas treated, and what sort of fishing industry we want. It’s a no-brainer to me that supporting low-impact fishing methods that also support local communities is a good thing to do. And the hopeful note from the fisher closing the conference spoke volumes: "We have to believe in a better future".
Perhaps we have started to glimpse that future.