Q: What do you do when you run out of fish?
A: go catch someone else’s!
Cheeky perhaps, but that is the gist of what is referred to in European fishy politics circles as ‘The External Dimension’. Although it sounds like something from sci-fi, this is quite simply European fishing boats catching fish in non-European waters. Earlier this year I joined a Greenpeace ship in West Africa to see the scale of this first hand. It’s a pretty big deal, in every sense.
The vessels that travel the world flying European flags, whilst hoovering up fish in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, the seas of West Africa, and, coming soon to Australia, do so with more than just the EU’s blessing. They also get large wads of EU taxpayer’s cash in subsidies and access agreements. And they get the might of the EU’s lobbying on their behalf.
So, given we pay for this, and sanction this, we have to presume it’s all being done in the best possible way, and we are being good global citizens here, huh? Sadly, you already know what I am going to say…
The sheer scale of the vessels involved can be staggering. As can the value of subsidies. Individual vessels, like the Margiris, currently on its way to Australian waters, often receive millions of Euros in total. But what is really hard to swallow here is how we are behaving overseas. Not content with overfishing European waters, we are simply exporting our addiction elsewhere, and screwing over other people’s livelihoods, and other seas in the process.
There was a glimmer of hope earlier on in the EU negotiations on CFP reform, and our own minister, Richard Benyon was a champion for us cleaning up our external dimension. Sadly in the most recent round of talks, the odd ‘General Approach’ that was agreed by European ministers seems to have backtracked significantly on this.
In the simplest terms, whilst there is still some good stuff in there about fishing sustainably, there is also a whole slew of new emphasis on supporting ‘European fishing interests’ and ‘continuing the activity of European fishing fleets’ in the waters of other nations. Language on fishing within sustainable limits has been manipulated in a way that might actually now oblige the EU to open new fishing grounds for the already-invested-in EU fleet in order to exploit so-called ‘surpluses’ of fish.
Leaving aside the notion of shoals of hapless fish just swimming around cluttering up the sea being all ‘surplussy’, the only acceptable way for Europe to behave in other people’s seas is to not be putting Europe’s fishing interests first. It must absolutely be about respect for local fishing communities, promoting genuinely sustainable development of local fishing activities and processing facilities, and paying a fair price for the fish Europeans buy from the region. Local sustainable fishing fleets should also profit as a result of fair fishing and sourcing agreements with the EU.
I have no doubt that our politicians genuinely don’t want to shaft coastal communities in developing countries (I’m not sure if Australia counts…), but they really must make sure that the policies they agree don’t do that in practice.
As it stands, it simply looks like big business as usual, and to hell with those left dealing with the consequences.