29th Sep 2023


Catch 22: sustainability vs viability for 'green' fishing

  • The fishing vessel GO-37, in harbour of fishing town Stellendam in the Netherlands (Photo: Peter Geluk)
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Dutch fisherman Hans Tanis has his fears. He has been fishing for flatfish in the North Sea for 12 years with his vessel GO-37, located in fishing town Stellendam in the Netherlands. "My cousin and I are the sixth generation running this business."

Tanis has two young sons who already like to exclaim how they will follow in their fathers' footsteps. However, when asked whether he would see his sons taking over, his answer is tinged with concern. "Right now, I would prefer them to pursue another trade."

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  • Dutch fisherman Hans Tanis: 'Right now, I would prefer [my sons] to pursue another trade' (Photo: Peter Geluk)

Tanis' worries reflect the distress felt by fishermen and women throughout Europe. The European Commission recently proposed an action plan to reduce the sectors' impact on marine ecosystems, among other initiatives implementing the Green Deal.

On 24 and 25 May, the European Parliament's PECH committee on fisheries held a public hearing about the future of the industry. After the commission proposed the controversial action plan, its social and economic impact on fishing activities were considered.

A follow-up hearing is now scheduled for Tuesday (27 June). Fisherman Tanis understands that green transformation is inevitable, but he doesn't feel supported. "The EU is demanding change that cannot be met without a viable plan", says Tanis.

Caroline Roose, MEP, Greens/EFA coordinator in the PECH committee, understands the urgency. "We've hit a wall,'' she says.

She explains that EU Member States do have the tools to plan a fair green transition in the fisheries sector. ''There are many ways for governments to act — financial support for more selective fishing techniques and small scale fisheries which create more jobs, and better allocation of fishing quotas."

So far, the EU has initiated several developments aimed at helping the fishing industry to go greener and restore ecosystems. Amongst them are the lowering of fishing quotas, and an increase of marine protected areas.

These initiatives are starting to bear results. This month, the commission published a promising report on the health of the northeast Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea.

While some fish stocks have returned to healthy levels, there still is a long way to go. The fishing mortality rate, which measures the impact of fishing activities on fish populations, remains 71 percent above the recommended rate for sustainability. Maintaining the current trajectory and intensifying green efforts will be crucial in working towards a sustainable future.

Lack of sustainable methods

A significant hurdle stands in the way of restoring the oceans. Currently, there is a lack of environmentally-sustainable fishery methods. Dr Nathalie Steins, senior scientist at Wageningen Marine Research, says the development of sustainable innovation for fishing is a lengthy process.

A few years ago, the Netherlands unveiled the pulse fishing technique, as a potential green solution, to the PECH committee.

The European Parliament then voted against the use of the pulse fishing technique in 2019. "It took 20 years to develop the pulse fishing technique. We are not likely to see a new innovation for at least another decade", according to Steins.

As the industry faces up to a lack of innovative and environmentally-friendly fishing methods, the challenges for fleets to sustain their livelihood are growing. Tanis says that action is required to address this issue and provide support to ensure the viability of fisheries. "There is no green path without viable businesses," he warns.

Dr Pim Boute, a researcher on the pulse-fishing technique and its effects on marine organisms, says several factors contribute to fishermens' concerns about their future. Beginning with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, causing fuel prices to rocket, but even Brexit still plays its part. "In addition, an increase of fishing ground is lost by offshore wind turbine parks, marine-protected areas, and seaways for military purposes and transport."

It is not that innovation is without any financial support. EU member states are directed to subsidise the green transition. In the Netherlands, €444m was made available to make the North Sea fisheries become economically-profitable again. In addition, funds will be made available for innovations in sustainable fishing, and the shared use of offshore wind turbine parks. "The ministry works closely together with the fisheries sector", according to a spokesperson from the the Dutch ministry of agriculture, nature and food quality.

Rules keep changing?

According to Steins, the industry is in a Catch-22 situation. "The biggest challenge right now is that fishermen are not doing well financially. With low revenues you aren't going to invest in new innovations."

Tanis agrees. "We are very conscious about the environment, but a viable business is essential for working towards a green transition."

Despite the challenges, Geert Hoekstra, a Dutch economic researcher specialising in seafood, fisheries and aquaculture, has a positive outlook on the future. "There are ideas for innovations, but they are still in their starting phase."

According to him, it is essential to get the time and space to experiment with innovations. "You can't have constantly changing legislation. For fishermen, it's now like a football game, but the rules of the game keep changing.''

It appears that in order to go forward and overcome numerous challenges, the fishing industry has to unite, with the EU providing a clear direction and support. "The combination of environmental, economic and political factors has put the industry in a difficult position", Hoekstra explains.

Tanis adds: "A lot of fishing companies are now in survival mode."

Hoekstra says that with cooperation between member states, stable support and new innovations, there still is hope for the future of fishing. However, Hoekstra also thinks the future might be very different, explaining the challenges to fishing will continue to affect prices. "The price of sole fish was averaging around €7 per kilo. Now, the average price is €13-€15 per kilo.''

Without change, prices will continue to increase. "If this trend continues without any new viable innovations, then fishing will become an elite industry'', says Hoekstra. "Wild-captured fish will only be accessible to a small group of individuals in Europe. It's a grim situation. However, on the other hand, as they say, 'never waste a good crisis'."

Author bio

Suzanna de Vries and Karlijn Stenvers are freelance investigative journalists. This article is part of Crossborder Journalism Campus, an Erasmus+ project of the University of Gothenburg, Leipzig University and Centre de Formation des Journalistes in Paris.


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