When I was eight, a cod moratorium was announced in my home region of Eastern Canada. By then, cod had been fished off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for nearly 500 years.

When the area was discovered by explorer John Cabot (in 1497), it was believed there would be enough fish to feed the entire British empire for all time. That was not to be.

The moratorium changed everything for Eastern Canada. Already a marginalised area, communities were devastated by the dissolution of the cod fishery and over 30,000 people lost their jobs.

Today, cod stocks have recovered, but many of the rural areas affected by the moratorium have not. In Ireland there is much discussion around the sustainability of our fishing industries, but the question as to what’s being done remains unclear.

Common Fisheries Policy

In Ireland, our fisheries are managed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and, as a member state of the European Union (EU), our policies and rules around total allowable catch (TAC) are shaped by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Among other things, the CFP is responsible for allocating total allowable catch (per available species) to member states, creating legislation on fishing methods and providing support to the European fishing industry.

In 2018, Ireland’s TAC allocation accounted for 1.3m tonnes of fish with a landing value of €1.37bn (figures taken from the Marine Institute, marine.ie).

Ireland boasts some of the healthiest sea life in the EU; with our waters full of rich ecosystems. As with any ecosystem, if you remove one component, it impacts everything. The CFP relies on data collection from member states and outside research bodies to shape policies and ensure sustainability goals. One such goal was to end overfishing by 2020.

Enforcement of CFP regulations are the responsibility of member states. In Ireland, the body tasked with enforcing CFP regulations is the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA). It was established in 2007.

Dr Susan Steele, Chair of the SFPA, believes the role of a regulator should ideally go unnoticed, since those engaged in fishing and aquaculture are aware of the respective rules and regulations to which they are obliged to maintain.

Susan Steele is chair of Ireland's Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, the regulatory body for Irish fisheries.

As a child, Dr Steele was fascinated by the sea and went on to study marine biology, eventually obtaining her PhD in Zoology. She then spent several years working in fishery product development in Bord Iascaigh Mhara as head of innovation before accepting her current role with the SFPA. She says she is very much aware that sustainable fisheries management is a complicated task but, overall, we should have faith in the system.

“According to the Marine Institute’s Stock Book 2019, there is a higher number of stocks being fished sustainably,” she says.

More stocks are being fished sustainably, there’s better regulation from working within EU regulations, which is leading to a more sustainable industry in the long term

“In 2019 47% of the stocks fished were deemed to be scientifically sustainable compared with 2012, when this figure was 41% - the number of stocks reported as overfished decreasing over the same period by 6%.

“More stocks are being fished sustainably, there’s better regulation from working within EU regulations, which is leading to a more sustainable industry in the long term,” she continues. “The regulations the SFPA implements and enforces are based on the best scientific, economic and technical advice available. Everything caught is covered by those regulations. Consumers, as a result, never have to worry that Irish seafood is anything other than responsibly sourced and safe to eat.”

Poor track record

In April of this year, independent charity the New Economics Foundation released a 20-year analysis of the EU quota system. According to their findings, Ireland has been the second-worst member state for overfishing (Spain tops the list), though we remain within our quotas set by the CFP.

In their study, the foundation found that on average Ireland’s CFP quotas were set at 24% above scientific advice. They also claim that the Irish fishing industry and government work in close co-ordination.

In a statement, the study’s author, Griffin Carpenter, says if the EU delivered on its commitment to end overfishing, it could create over 20,000 new jobs, provide food for 89 million people and generate an extra €1.6bn in annual revenue.

The science of working it all out is very complex

“Instead, every year, fisheries ministers have set fishing limits above the best available scientific advice, even going so far as to ignore the EU’s own legal deadline of 2020,” the statement reads.

“To deliver sustainable seas, EU fisheries ministers must end this practice and respect EU law by following the scientific advice.”

Dr Steele declined to comment on claims that the CFP sets quotas above scientific advice, but says making change is not as clear cut as critics assume.

“The science of working it all out is very complex,” she says. “The development of regulations is for policy makers at both EU and national level.”

Failing to comply

Fintan Kelly is a policy officer with Birdwatch Ireland; specialising in environmental policy, advocacy and planning. He believes Ireland could be doing more to better manage our fisheries.

Fintan Kelly is a policy officer with Birdwatch Ireland. He largely focuses on the sustainability of Ireland's fisheries.

“I fully acknowledge that more stocks are now managed sustainably,” he says. “The really important, large stocks are managed more sustainably, but the CFP applies to all stock and there are still many being overfished. Birdwatch Ireland’s analysis saw that 51% of Irish relevant stocks have their fishing limit set above scientific advice.

“The SFPA are policing fishing activity,” he continues. “Ireland is the only EU state –that I know of – that haven’t brought forward legislation for a penalty points system.”

He points out an ongoing European Commission-led audit on Ireland’s fisheries as a result of ongoing non-compliance with CFP legislation and from our lack of a penalty points system.

There are still serious weaknesses in how we monitor our fisheries

The following is an excerpt from the European Commission’s website:

“Specifically, Ireland has failed to comply with European Union rules on establishing a point system for fisheries-related serious infringements committed by masters and licence holders of vessels flying the flag of Ireland. The commission considers that Ireland has not established a system that assigns an appropriate number of points to masters of fishing vessels who commit serious violations of the common fisheries policy rules. It has also failed to put into operation the current national legislation implementing the point system for licence holders.

“There are still serious weaknesses in how we monitor our fisheries,” Fintan says. “We would broadly accept that [EU] landing obligations have not been implemented and fisheries are still discarding fish illegally at sea. Back in 2013 the CFP decided discarding had to end; now it seems to continue as if it’s business as usual.”

Technology can help

Fintan says there are practical solutions that can help end overfishing and revitalise rural coastal communities who depend on fisheries for their livelihoods.

“As an environmentalist, I’m conscious of sustainable rural development and keeping young people in rural communities,” he says. “There aren’t many other [industries] where the interests of a healthier environment and economy run so totally in parallel. A lot of my work is in maximum sustainable yield: what is the maximum amount we can take? If we fish below that, the stock will increase. That is a purely economic objective and our fisheries should be focusing on [that].”

To end overfishing, a lot of help can come in the form of equipment and technology. Currently, there are EU regulations on the use of nets; specifically the mesh size of nets used. By using the proper sized mesh, smaller fish can escape.

CCTV on boats can help discourage illegal discarding and police CFP regulations on Irish boats. Dr Steele says all Irish boats, wherever they are fishing, are monitored via the electronic recording and reporting systems (ERS).

When they’re coming in to shore, four hours before their vessel comes in, they are obliged to notify the SFPA

“Any vessel above 12m length has a monitoring system, so we can see where they’re fishing,” she says. “Each night, they complete electronic fishing logbooks to show what they’ve caught and their up-take of the quota species is assessed against that which they have been allocated. When they’re coming in to shore, four hours before their vessel comes in, they are obliged to notify the SFPA they are intending to land and we inspect those selected on a risk basis, to ensure they have the nets they should have on-board. SFPA inspectors undertake risk assessed inspections and look for any non-compliance with the associated regulations for the vessels, and its catch and gear. Other checks are also made to ensure they have the fish they said they had on board.”

In the past, the SFPA have dealt with issues of non-compliance with shark finning, vessels over-quota or using the wrong fishing gear and vessels fishing in the wrong area. Such issues are assessed in regard to the seriousness of the matter and can lead to court prosecution.

Dr Steele says, that overall, Ireland’s fishing fleet has high compliance rates.

“The vast majority of fishermen want to be compliant to remain in the fishery,” she says. “Illegal fishing is damaging to everybody.”

Incentivising sustainability

Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) is the state agency responsible for developing the Irish seafood industry. In many countries around the world, sustainable seafood is a consumer-driven concern. BIM’s sustainability and certification manager Catherine Morrison says Ireland is no different in that regard.

Catherine Morrison is the sustainability and certification manager at Bord Iascaigh Mhara.

“From research BIM recently carried out on the international markets, there is widespread concern amongst consumers regarding sustainability of fish stocks and plastic waste in the oceans,” she says. “Fishers and fish farmers are also concerned with the sustainability of their businesses.”

BIM has a number of ongoing sustainability projects with the Irish seafood industry to help ensure these concerns are addressed. They include its Clean Oceans Initiative, fishery improvement projects, lobster V-notching (where tails of female lobsters are cut with a v-shaped notch to show they should be returned to the sea so that they can continue to breed, if caught), developing selective fishing gear to reduce levels of unwanted catch and testing technologies to prevent the bycatch of sensitive species.

BIM is also carrying out extensive work to further develop certification efforts for Irish fisheries. Last year, the rope-grown mussel fishery became the first Irish fishery fully certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC certification is internationally recognised, but becoming certified takes time, commitment and money (yes, fisheries have to pay). Once a fishery has been certified, they are subject to yearly audits with the constant threat of certification being removed if non-compliance is observed. MSC certification is science-based and independent; taking into consideration the stocks of certain species in designated areas as well as the fisheries themselves. It has its critics, but is generally trusted by environmental and scientific communities.

In such fisheries, even if Irish fishermen fish their allocation of a particular stock sustainability, others may not, and, overall, the stock may be assessed as biologically unsustainable

“MSC certification depends on the applicant having control over the management of the fishery,” Catherine explains. “Many fisheries where Irish fishers operate are [also] accessed by fleets from a number of [other] countries, meaning the overall management of the fishery does not sit within Ireland under the CFP. In such fisheries, even if Irish fishermen fish their allocation of a particular stock sustainability, others may not, and, overall, the stock may be assessed as biologically unsustainable.”

To promote sustainability within Irish fleets, BIM has developed Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIP), which provide a platform for fishermen, seafood buyers and suppliers to develop a strategy to improve specific fisheries.

“The aim of an FIP is to improve sustainability within a fishery and progress to certification under the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC),” Catherine says. “There are currently four FIPs supported by BIM for Brown Crab, Whitefish (Hake, Monkfish and Megrim), Nephrops (Dublin Bay Prawns) and Albacore Tuna.”