Three men in a boat

01 Jul 2007

Left to right: Jaime Silva (Portugal), Horst Seehofer (Germany) and Iztok Jarc (Slovenia). TW : EEC Photos

There are now 27 EU ministers with responsibility for Agriculture and Fish and Rural Development (AFRD). Germany’s Horst Seehofer took over the Presidency of the Council in January for the usual six months. But under a little known but useful idea, from the unsigned EU Constitution which is still becalmed in the doldrums, minister Seehofer had agreed with his six-monthly successors (Jaime Silva of Portugal, July to December 2007 and Iztok Jarc of Slovenia, January to June 2008) that they should team up as a troika for the whole 18 months. Each would lead as his turn came up, but they would share the workload and so be much more available time wise and geographically.

The result seems to work. It could be of decided advantage to fishermen. They now have three people to lobby, can put their case in detail over a long period and plan more consistently and regularly on long-term issues of catch, season and stock sustainability. It should be one more nail in the pre-Christmas, late-night haggling in Brussels.

Slippery eels

Of course, with 27 ministers, quite a few are landlocked and they might be tempted to trade votes, say apples against fish. Also, the NGOs have been at war, literally, with French tuna fishermen recently. France and Spain had held out over a decision at the May Fish Council on the control of sand eel and red tuna.

Horst Seehofer said he could have pushed the final proposal through on a ‘qualified majority’ (the other states voting to override French and Spanish objections on tuna and sand eels). France asked for a postponement till the 11-12 June Council, so that the decision involved the new government after the French presidential election. The troika agreed, as it was a reasonable and sensible request Seehofer said. Both France and Spain had made it clear that they felt the proposals were too restrictive.

Of course any basis for the June decision centred on a wider issue – reliable data. Right at the start of the three-day, May informal World Fishing raised with the troika the validity of the ICES-coordinated, national ‘scientific’ data for all stocks on which ministers and the Commission were taking decisions. Indeed WF clashed openly with Seehofer about the specific issue of what the ‘estimated’ global illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing catch was. Seehofer stuck at his 30 per cent, while recent ‘scientific estimates’ put it at up to 40 per cent. WF retorted, that (if the guesstimates are valid) then Germany had ‘lost’ up to $500 million of the estimated global cost of IUU.

Such enormous cash differentials have a knock-on effect on stock decisions and also hit honest fishermen.

Portugal’s Silva, ahead of the game, said: “On your precise question on IUU and what the Portuguese Presidency intends to do, I have myself made bilateral agreements with Canada and Norway. I think the Commission is on the same [path] and Portugal has decided already with [Fisheries] Commissioner Borg to organise an international conference in November on illegal fisheries in order to get EU public opinion [moving]. I think this question of illegal fisheries has to be handled in the near future.

“As you know, every member state has its own scientific opinions [on] their own data, for example according to data on sand eels in Portugal, [they are] slightly different from the international [data]. Portugal’s government has decided not to allow the fishing of eels. Sustainability is the key word to mention”, he added.

“So it’s not the case that nothing is happening on illegal fishing,” Seehofer joined in, “but we need to improve what we are doing and all 27 member states agree on that,” he said.

One of the primary tasks of the German six-month lead was to tackle IUU. But the North East Atlantic Fisheries’ Commission (NEAFC) had already swung into action on May 1. Within a week NEAFC had sent six illegal vessels for crushing and a queue of others waiting for destruction while the EU is still discussing what to do.

On giving a full role for fishermen’s data, persistent queries from WF remained largely unanswered by the troika over the three days. There is some movement towards the fishermen as the weakness of ICES’ compilations begin to emerge. Down in Horst Seehofer’s engine room is Dr German J. Jeub, in charge of fisheries at the ministry.

“It is clear that we cannot allow IUU fishing vessels in our harbours etc. – we must control it. But the idea is that we have to do more,” he told WF.

On discards, Dr Jeub said it had been at the suggestion of German fishermen that Germany planned a discard monitoring pilot project in the Baltic and one in the North Sea. “The idea is to have more information [on the effect of] the prohibition of discards. At the moment we do not know the impacts. One problem is that we have to be [able to] allow undersized fish on the market for example…so…we also have to discuss the marketing scheme for the fish and this is very complex,” he added.

Small is powerful

Discards, plus local catch, local management and local sales are all probably a good fit. With disappearing deepsea EU fleets, Europe’s coastal fishermen have two small friends in high places who could help change things. It seems the smaller you are in the EU the more you can vote above your weight, as in the case of Portugal and Slovenia.

In Jaime Silva, the three men in this boat have a world-ranking navigator, born, like Magellan, in northern Portugal. He knows how to keep his charts secret as well as inspire good morale. Multilingual Silva knows every rock and reef in Brussels. He has spent half his life either working in Brussels or negotiating Portugal’s relations with the rest of the EU. Most ministers flit in and out there one day a month. The smallest fisherman may find that Silva is someone who will help steer them through any storm.

He is no pushover. “Young eels are [selling] at €300 per kg in Portugal and I have forbidden [their catch]. There is a lot of illegal [catching]. We have all kinds of controls but every night somewhere [racketeers] are out at three or four am [taking eels] to sell in Spain because the price is so high.”

He agreed that if one could bring real, honest fishermen on side, it would be possible to nail the gangs who are doing the fiddling, and not just on eels.

Silva and Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told WF that another reason for the eel trafficking was demand from China, and Japan, it seems, is selling imported eel at up to €600 a kg.

Silva, with Luís Viera, his fisheries director below decks, has a very large constituency of 20,000 coastal fishermen with 90 per cent of the country’s vessels under 20m. They can see a future of multitasking with help to diversify into aquaculture (on land, coast and offshore) retail sales, tourism and restaurants – all local, local, local.

“We plan support to modernise this small sector and invest in the coast – small warehouses, and involving local town halls as there are social funds there,” Viera said.

Alongside a push for 50 per cent from aquaculture, to ensure supplies, they want to “support the small, artisanal sector, [improve] safety and modernise vessels.” That includes curbing supermarket pressure for non-seasonal product. “We must support organisations for fishermen, help them with logistics, maybe so they can buy a small refrigerated vehicle, a small shop for sales to [home] hotels, restaurants, [so they are] well organised, and [we can] return the value added to producers.” That also means “getting certification of seafood for local small fishing – fresh fish, respecting quality and the environment to show that is a different product and the consumer will pay more for this. This can be done by the small fishing sector through well organised producers,” Viera added.

So coastal could flourish again. The EU may finally have a new deal with Morocco and (other countries) to get processing product. But even Iberia’s once close collaboration with Morocco has declined. There are only 14 Portuguese deepsea boats under the new agreement, compared with 500 vessels under the old one, the Portuguese told WF. It seems the Spanish foreign fleet has declined dramatically and the remaining vessels have switched to other specie areas.

Problem neighbours

Little (two million inhabitants) and wealthy Slovenia has always played clever, just avoiding the tanks and iron boot of Slobodan Milošević, and, since the breakup of Yugoslavia, hiking the value of its tourism (and hi-tech industries) to dizzy levels. It is northern Italy’s playground but that comes with problems. The latter help minister Iztok Jarc empathise over, not just understand, fishing conflicts between neighbours, whether in the Baltic or between the UK, Ireland, Holland, France and Portugal.

His Presidency in 2008 is when the CFP and CAP will undergo an EU ‘health check’. That is not reform, Commissioner Boel pointed out. It will be a chance to make adjustments. So smart fishermen will start planning their input now. Of particular importance is the link between socioeconomic issues in farming and selling local and organic product on the coastal areas – these are vital partners for fishermen on the waters of that same coast.

“We don’t want to be dramatic – we want to do the job,” Jarc told WF. “We plan to hold a conference in Slovenia on the environment and fisheries, [though] we have not decided the topic. For the small, closed seas like the Adriatic, this is [an] important topic, because of Trieste Bay, Istria, environmental sustainability, pipelines…” [Italy’s neighbouring Trieste port is a main oil sea transfer point for Europe].

“Would the fishermen be invited?” asked WF. “Of course they will be!” he said. “The economic development of the small towns on the coast, where the fishery was very important in the past, and is not so any more now, is something which we are bringing attention to. For the first time we have got some funding to do something for the fishermen in Slovenia. For 20 years they have been having problems because it was more and more difficult to reach the open Adriatic, not to mention the Mediterranean.”

This was compounded by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, he said, adding: “And even now the Croats are proposing actually to share the Adriatic with the Italians and to control [it], which means our guys would have lots of problems – even if they got some permission in the end to catch something.” He is also aware of ‘historical rights’ being affected by movement of fish to warmer/cooler waters.

He is ready to focus on more sustainability for the local fishermen, not the big combines. “Yes, this is something we will do in Slovenia….”

Commercial threat

Some fishermen may not be fully aware that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) can be a commercial threat (whatever the science). This could relate to experimental sites which are neighbours to fish farms, and to coastal fishermen and restaurateurs working in partnership with organic food producers to meet local demand.

WF asked, but did not get convincing answers for hard action that it would like to have heard from Horst Seehofer on preventing GMOs (legal and black market) getting into the fishfeed chain. He said the regulations would be implemented by each state.

Back in 2004 WF had publicly raised the black market contamination of fishfeed (and all food) risk with Food Commissioner Byrne at the Corfu informal. Yet, US GMO rice has been allowed to contaminate the retail chain. The latest failure on prevention has been Chinese GMO protein in EU animal feed.

Jarc said such contamination was a real commercial threat to producers because of European consumer resistance (scientifically valid or no) to GMO traces in products. For example, contamination of apples and plums could do real damage to Slovenian exports of fruit and slivovica (plum brandy).

[This risk also applies to the risk of GMO traces in fishfeed for farmed fish from Portugal, Greece, Norway or Scotland. Consumers (and supermarkets) may refuse to buy.]

“There is pressure to do it [adopt GMO strains] and we want to regulate with the new laws – it is quite a worry to us – and [we have to be] very cautious about that,” Jarc said.

Silva also recognises the importance of protection from consumer resistance to GMO. He told WF that he had imposed a quarantine zone of 200m in Portugal around experimental GM maize research planting. Minister Seehofer said he was relying on the 150m ‘scientific’ limit but was pressed very hard by the German press.

Silva was clear: “We need to be worried about that [illegal GMO contamination of food], we need to be sure that the legislation we have is appropriate to implement it – that is what we are doing in our government.”