11 February 2000 - 13 February 2000

Fisheries: managing international common resources

Chair: Professor Sir John Krebs FRS

We met over 11-13 February to consider the growing problems of managing one of the last common resources of the world – fish.

At the outset of the conference we were obliged to recognise an historic fact.  Fishing had changed irrevocably from the simple hunter-gatherer occupation it had once been.  It now more nearly resembled land-cultivation where management of the eco-system had become paramount.  A second consideration, that appeared in many guises throughout the conference, was the difficulty for policy-makers in deciding whether modern fishery should be run on an economic basis or whether equal weight should be given to the socio-economic implications for communities whose way of life depended on fishery.  We were assured that the situation was serious.  Continuation of our present practices could result in an ecological disaster.  Some queried this apocalyptic view, but did not deny the urgency of improving the application of our present policies.

Fortunately our conference embodied a wider than usual range of interests and expertise.  We found little difficulty in reaching agreement on the extent or the causes of the problems currently facing the fishing industry: lack of coherent and prioritised long term policy objectives; over-capacity in fishing fleets; a deteriorating marine environment; inadequate and uneven enforcement of international instruments; and a lack of “joined-up thinking” across related policy areas (eg protection of the environment and of endangered species) which has served to exacerbate the problems already inherent in successful marine stewardship.  

Neither were we short of ideas on what should be done to improve matters: greater commitment to sustainable development in fisheries management; gradual elimination of subsidies to create a self-reliant industry; comprehensive rules and procedures, internationally applicable, but regionally applied; coherent, equal and transparent enforcement of these rules to restrict both access and catch; integration of environmental issues into the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy; mandatory cuts in capacity; new rules on discards; and, in all of this, closer involvement in the decision making process of all stakeholders (fishermen, scientists, processors, retailers, consumers, environmental NGOs etc). 

We worried – perhaps unduly – about the impact of aquaculture which now accounted for some 20% of global production of fish and shellfish.  We heard that these fish stocks showed a marked susceptibility to pollution and disease and, it appeared, could also have an adverse effect on survival rates of wild species such as scallops.  In Norway, 30% of rivers have lost their wild salmon runs since having salmon farms situated at their mouths.  Coincidence?

In examining the various options for change we repeatedly ran up against the twin obstacles of  “the lack of political will” and “the law of unintended consequences”.    We were reminded by those familiar with the daily grind of consensus politics in the EU and the UN that proposals which might sound entirely reasonable in a conference about fisheries would look very different (even “explosive”) in a conference at, for example, the WTO.  And we reminded ourselves that it is always easier to agree on principles than on practical measures.  The socio-economic implications of the elimination of subsidies could be political suicide for MPs from coastal constituencies.  And it was never easy to persuade the consumer to pay more for a product in the interests of the environment. (We flirted in this respect with the idea of harnessing the funds, other resources and influence of the environmental NGOs in swinging public opinion behind a serious push to change current  practice, and wondered whether this might be pursued in the forthcoming Ditchley conference on the International role and accountability of NGOs on 5-7 May).

We were conscious too of the “Northern” bias in the composition of our conference and of the different perspective many of our Southern European neighbours, or countries in less developed areas of the world, would have on the problem.  Overall, we heard fish accounted for only 6% of the total protein consumption world-wide.  But, in any revision of existing fishing policies, account would need to be taken of the relatively greater importance of fish as a source of protein in many less wealthy communities.

As in so many areas of public policy, we recognised that a radical shift in public perception was an essential pre-requisite for change.  Fishermen (professional or recreational) had to be encouraged to move away from the idea of fish as a common (ie free) resource to be plundered at will (the “property rights” solution); the consumer had to be encouraged to accept the price (ie higher retail costs) of a sustainable supply of a better quality product; and all concerned had to be educated about the impact of their actions on the marine environment. It was no more acceptable for fishermen to pollute the high seas with their own waste products (including polystyrene cups!) or to damage (through over-fishing) marine ecosystems, than it was for local authorities to dump untreated sewage or companies to discard unwanted equipment in the deep oceans. (Although, we heard, the law of unintended consequences could work in favour of fish when it comes to underwater disposal of disused oil rigs which provide them with ideal new habitats).   

Time and again in our deliberations about why existing international agreements had so manifestly failed to have any real impact on the problem (indeed the situation in European waters had, it was asserted, deteriorated significantly since the introduction of the CFP) we were tempted to conclude that control of the resource might better be transferred from the international political community to the regional or local level.  (The fact that over 90% of fish are caught in the 200 mile zone rather than in international waters tended to reinforce this argument.)  We heard a number of examples of comparatively successful fisheries management under communal or co-operative ownership.  And, although lessons learnt in relation to such “simple fisheries”(often based on single non-migratory species and predicated on exclusion by a homogenous community) might not easily translate to management of migratory stocks or to fishing in international waters, the basic principles of delegated incentives for fishermen to move towards effective management regimes, including some form of self-policing, seemed to make good and universally applicable sense.

In a detailed look at the operation of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which is due for review by 2002, we moved beyond analysing the failings of the existing system to try to imagine what reforms might be introduced.  Broad consensus was reached that changes needed to be made to the present institutional arrangements;  that a serious effort should be made to tackle existing overcapacity, made worse by advances in modern technology;  and that subsidies should be phased out.  On  institutional arrangements we thought that, although the main framework of the CFP should be decided at Council level, the implementation should be done at the local level within more coherent areas for fishing  ie the Mediterranean, the Baltic etc where involvement of all the stakeholders should be our top priority.  In addition, deep capacity cuts, accompanied by retraining and other grants, should be implemented and linked to the level of fish resources.  Once again cuts should be agreed at the Council but implemented locally.  And finally all direct subsidies should be phased out by 2010.  Before 2010, subsidies should only be allowed if they did not result in an increase in capacity or fishing effort.  We recognised that specific local communities could face problems with such a system and that national governments might need to introduce special measures to assist such communities.

However tempting it might be to opt for “local solutions” on a wider basis, we were reminded by those with experience of managing the global environment that the world’s oceans are not “somebody else’s back yard”.  The complexity and interaction of marine ecosystems requires an international approach to fisheries management, even if responsibility for implementation might best be devolved to the local or regional level.  And whilst the more pragmatic of us were prepared to settle for better enforcement of, and adherence to, existing international instruments as the more realistic goal, others argued that this was far too timid an approach given the scale of the problem.  The real prize would be agreement on a new, comprehensive global approach, possibly through the establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on the Oceans, analogous to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As one participant put it, new institutions are sometimes worse than making old one’s work; but what is certain is that we must make the old one’s work if there are no new institutions.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: Professor Sir John Krebs FRS
Chairman, United Kingdom Food Standards Agency

Mr Barry Appleton

Lawyer and Managing Partner, Appleton and Associates, Toronto
Mr Ronald W Bulmer
President, Fisheries Council of Canada
Mr Randolph Gherson MSM
Former Ambassador for Fisheries Conservation, Department of External Affairs and International Trade
Mr Tom MacDonald
Minister (Commercial-Economic), Canadian High Commission, London
Professor Peter H Pearse
Faculty of Forestry, Forest Resources Management Department, University of British Columbia
Mr Howard Strauss
Director, Oceans, Environment and Economic Law Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Mr Wayne Wouters
Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Oceans

Mr Morten Lautrup-Larsen

Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries

Mr John Farnell

Director, Directorate A, Directorate-General (Fisheries), European Commission
Mr Christoph Nordmann
Adviser, Directorate-General (Fisheries), European Commission

Dr Sophie des Clers

Institute for Environmental Policy, School of Public Policy, University College London

Mr Jonathan Peacey

Fisheries Director, Marine Stewardship Council, London

Professor Rögnvaldur Hannesson

World Humanity Action Trust Commission on Fish Stocks, Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration

Dr Ola Flaaten

Head, Fisheries Division, Directorate for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, OECD

Mr Roger Bate

Director, European Science and Environment Forum, Cambridge
Miss Caroline Blatch
Legal consultant, Enact International
Dr Paul A Brady
Fisheries Secretary, Rural Affairs Department, Scottish Office
Mr John Goodlad
Shetland Fish Producers Organisation Limited, Lerwick
Mr Vanya Hackel
Fisheries Reform Group, Perthshire
Mr Nick Howell
Managing Director, British Cured Pilchards Limited, Newlyn
Mr Andrew Jackson
Head, Maritime Section, Aviation, Maritime, Science and Energy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Andrew Mallison
Fish Specialist, Marks & Spencer plc
Dr Malcolm MacGarvin
Environmental policy consultant to European Commission
Professor Jacqueline McGlade
Director, Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences, NERC
Mr James Provan MEP (South East Region)
Vice-President, European Parliament
Dr Tim Render
First Secretary (Fisheries), Office of the UK Permanent Representative to the EU, Brussels
Dr Matthew Ridley
Freelance journalist and author
Dr Kevin Stokes
Director, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, Lowestoft
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding
Mr Stephen Wentworth
Fisheries Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Mr Michael Wigan
Freelance writer and journalist

Mr Michael De Alessi

Director, Center for Private Conservation, San Francisco
Mr James M Kendall
Executive Director, New Bedford Seafood Coalition
Mr Clay J Landry
Political Economic Research Center, Bozeman, Montana
Mr James D O’Malley
Executive Director, East Coast Fisheries Federation Inc
Dr Jean-Pierre Plé
Acting Senior Atlantic Affairs Officer, US Department of State