Monday, 16 October 2017

Super trawlers: a case of too much fish in too few hands.

Dutch freezer SCH303 Ariadne - Super trawlers are the largest and most powerful of the freezer trawler fleet - their capacity to process huge quantities of fish daily is what makes them so efficient and effective.

The Fisheries (PECHE) Committee of the European Parliament organized a hearing last Monday 9 October on the theme “Super-trawlers: destructive or sustainable”, the title highlighting the polarised and impassioned nature of the issue. Papers presented to the hearing can be accessed via

For many, the term super-trawler has come to signify a form of intensive factory fishing, essentially for small-pelagic species, undertaken by huge vessels over 100 metres long, spending several weeks at sea, with the capacity to catch hundreds of tonnes in one haul, and to process, freeze and store the catch on-board.

However, as highlighted by two of the speakers at the European Parliament hearing, with advances in technology, this description only fits one fleet segment. Gerard Van Balsfort, President of the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association, highlighted that the catching capacity of a 125 metre freezer trawler spending several weeks at sea is very similar to that of a trawler half the size, which may use the same gear, but only spends a few days at sea. He also felt that to equate big with bad was not correct, that there was a place for both big and small under the sun.

Brian O’Riordan, from the Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) drew attention to the issue of sustainability, and the need to achieve the right balance between social, economic and environmental objectives, between current needs and future aspirations, and between different interests, between big and small. In his view, super-trawlers concentrated too much wealth and power in too few hands, upsetting the balance needed to achieve sustainable development for the benefit of all.

Professor Pere Puig AlenyĆ  from the Marine Science Institute (ICM) from Barcelona noted that over the last 20 years the trend has been for much larger and more powerful trawlers using heavier gear, including steel trawl doors, to replace older, smaller and less destructive vessels. According to Professor AlenyĆ , this new generation of large demersal trawlers could also be categorized as “super-trawlers” due to their enormous catching capacity and destructive impact on marine life on the seabed. He went on to warn that supertrawlers “are currently destroying traditional fishing grounds and causing issues with the rest of the local trawling fleet that cannot fish on such a furrowed and heavily altered sea-floor.”

In many ways, the rise of supertrawlers was a perverse product of the Common Fisheries Policy that adopted a scrap and rebuild approach in the 1990s. The then European Fisheries Commissioner Emma Bonino encapsulated Europe’s fishing woes as “too many boats and too few fish”. She predicted that the future for coastal communities that depend on fishing was in shore-based factory jobs, processing and adding value to fish caught by super-trawlers working off-shore. In her vison of a “Blue Europe”, the days of small scale inshore fleets were numbered. In her view the future lay in an easier to manage, smaller fleet of very large vessels, catching fish more cost effectively. Hers was a “win-win” vision of improved conservation, a more profitable fleet, shore based jobs, and cheap processed fish for consumers.

Unfortunately for many coastal communities, Emma Bonino’s vision has come true, but only partially. Supertrawlers are working off-shore, but the shore based jobs have not materialised as promised. This is particularly so in Ireland where the fishing boom of the 1980s has turned into a fishing bust for many in the 2000s, with the consequent demise of coastal communities, notably in the West of Ireland, one of the areas hardest hit by the financial crisis and subsequent recession post 2008. Fish processing factories do exist, but jobs are highly seasonal and full of uncertainty, and not accessible to those who live in remote communities. Killybegs super-trawlers often prefer to land in Scotland, Denmark or Norway, closer to the fishing grounds. Landings by vessels from Northern Ireland and other UK pelagic vessels into Killybegs have ceased in recent years, adding further to uncertainties. Many people in Donegal now have to drive 150 miles to Galway to find work, or spend the week in Dublin away from their families and communities, with a consequent impact on their quality of life, and life in their communities.

Another big problem with such a vision is that it is blind to the important role fishing plays, especially small-scale fishing, in rural economies, where fishing may supplement other sources of income. Fishing also provides both full and part time sea and shore based activities, including marine and wildlife tourism, engineering and transport in remote coastal and island communities, without which such communities would not be viable. Fishing and seafaring skills are needed to provide crew for local lifeboats for example, and without sufficient job prospects people leave communities, causing the closure of schools, health services, and other amenities. For these communities, the CFP has effectively produced a few large vessels with too much fish, and caused too many small vessels, and the communities that they support and who in turn support them to struggle to make a living without sufficient fish.

The concentration of such fishing wealth in the hands of a few millionaires also skews the power relations around the negotiating table. Such unequal power is reflected in the recent decision of the Irish government to gift 87% of the 2018 mackerel quota, valued at Euros 61 million to the Killybegs mackerel millionaires. At the same time, a request from the Irish Islands Marine Resources Organization (IIMRO), that represents small scale fishers from the Irish West coast islands, for a small share of the quota, 106 tonnes, 1% of the 2017 quota increase, and 0.12% of the total Irish TAC of 86,429 for 2017, was declined.

The enormous catching capacity of super-trawlers also means that their capacity for by-catch is huge. A haul of 400 to 1,000 tonnes even with only 1 to 5% bycatch implies 4 to 50 tonnes of marine mammals, sharks, finfish and other marine life; with 10% or more, that could mean 100 tonnes or more of by-catch in a big haul. Reports from the Baltic and West Africa point to vast quantities of undeclared finfish and non-fish by-catch being hauled up in the giant nets of these vessels. The issue of by-catch is particularly worrying for French, Dutch and UK small scale fishers using handlines to catch bass in the Southern North Sea, North Bay of Biscay and Western Approaches. Spawning aggregations of bass are extremely vulnerable to such large mobile gears, and the state of bass stocks is a cause for concern to fishers, scientists, environmentalists and policy makers alike.

The monitoring and control of super-trawlers also leaves much to be desired, particularly given the huge capacity of the vessels to do a great deal of damage in a short time compared to smaller-scale operations. VMS only sends a signal every 2 hours, which means that keeping proper tabs on the positions of super-trawlers is impossible. Off the island of Aranmore in North Donegal, the crab pots of inshore fishermen are regularly carried away by trawlers. In 2016 at least 91 pots were lost worth around €7,826, and so far in 2017, equipment valued at € 24,510 has been lost. There is no mechanism through which fishers can make compensation claims or take legal action for such losses. It is considered a civil matter, and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), the Naval Service, the Garda and Coastguard refuse to help. Similar reports of damaged gear and of undeclared and discarded bycatch have been received from Scotland and the North Sea.

To safeguard the rights of coastal and island communities, IIMRO has proposed an “Island Fisheries Heritage License”, to enable fishers to operate small vessels and static gears inside the 6-mile zone, subject to certain restrictions. They are calling for an inshore area within the 6-mile zone dedicated to small scale low impact fishing for vessels owned and operated by members of coastal and island communities.

There may be a future for both small scale fishing and super-trawlers, but the priority right now is to redress the huge imbalance that exists, if our fisheries are to be sustained on a fair and equitable basis, and not destroyed by super-trawlers and their ilk.

Article courtesy of Brian O'Riordan.