Fish flourish under lockdown — but fishermen flounder
Coronavirus is keeping Europe’s fishing fleets in port, allowing fish that would normally have been hooked or netted to live and spawn another day.
This spring’s unexpected drop in fishing mirrors the collapse that occurred during World War II, but this time the effect is likely to be shorter. However, it’s already leading fishing lobbies to call for an expanded season next year.
“As one decreases fishing activity, stocks increase, and we expected to see a substantial recovery in terms of numbers,” said Basilio Otero, president of the Spanish Federation of Fishermen’s Brotherhoods.
The impact is evident in France, which registered a 56 percent drop in the volume of fish caught in March and April compared with the same period in 2019.
“In countries like Spain or France, during the first weeks [of the crisis] around 70 percent of the coastal fishing fleet had to stop fishing, with the situation improving little by little over the last weeks of April, but still far from normal,” said Daniel Voces, managing director of the European fishing lobby Europêche.
“Even if fishermen were to work more [in the second half of the year], it is very likely that this year’s catch will be lower than what was foreseen or with what was caught in 2019” — Claire Ulrich, deputy head of science at the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea
With countries beginning to emerge from their coronavirus lockdowns, the pause in fishing may not last long enough to allow for a big rebound in fish populations. During World War II the fear of being torpedoed or shot kept fishermen in port for years, leading to a dramatic recovery in fish stocks.
“When fishermen returned to the North Sea after those several years of war they found that the fish were more numerous and bigger,” said Clara Ulrich, marine expert and deputy head of science at the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer).
She called the wartime recovery “the founding example for understanding and studying fish population dynamics,” adding that “it’s interesting to make the parallel with World War II, since we haven’t had the chance since then to witness such a long pause in fishing activities.”
Despite the intriguing similarity in conditions, Ulrich warned that it’s still too early to tell if the same thing will happen now.
“Even if fishermen were to work more [in the second half of the year], it is very likely that this year’s catch will be lower than what was foreseen or with what was caught in 2019,” Ulrich said.
The one that got away
The problem is that the pause isn’t likely to last.
“While disruption in seafood supply chains has brought temporary relief to wild fish populations, this should not be celebrated,” a group of 11 NGOs wrote in a policy paper released in late April. “This environmental improvement has not come about due to any deliberate transition plan for workers, nor will any environmental relief prove lasting once the public health crisis passes.”
That’s why ocean campaigners are proposing their own plan to ensure that the post-coronavirus recovery of the fishing sector is done in a sustainable manner and that it abides by the principles of the European Green Deal.
They want environmental conditions — like the use of more selective fishing gear or cameras on boats to monitor the discard of fish — to be attached to any COVID-19 rescue money.
Fishermen are not opposed to sustainability criteria. “We are fine with that aid having sustainability conditions,” said Otero. “Although it’s worth pointing out that we are already very efficient in terms of fishing and emissions, and a kilo of fish produces fewer emissions than any other food source.”
The EU institutions agreed in early April to dedicate the remaining money from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund to compensate fishermen for loss of income. The bailouts are coming because the fishing industry is acutely affected by the pandemic.
Fishermen sell stocks from their boat in Marseille, France on May 3, 2020 | Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images
“Many crews refused to go out because they feared contagion,” Otero said, adding that “with up to five people in a cabin, it’s normal for them to be worried.”
But that’s not the only reason some ships are staying home.
Lockdowns have left restaurants and bars shuttered across the Continent, and that’s caused a collapse in demand and prices for fish. “Red shrimp that used to be sold at €80 to €100 a kilo is now going for €3 to €10,” Otero said. That makes it difficult to justify fishing trips on economic grounds.
There are also worries that those vessels braving the pandemic will be able to break the rules more easily.
Europêche is asking for the possibility to roll over more than 10 percent of this year’s fishing quotas to next year.
“Just as some fishing vessels are not going to sea due to safety concerns, the same applies to control vessels and the operation of fisheries observer programs,” the NGOs wrote in the policy paper. “This presents a serious risk of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing from vessels that continue to fish.”
With more fish in the sea, some see that as an opportunity.
Europêche is asking for the possibility to roll over more than 10 percent of this year’s fishing quotas to next year. Otero is confident that the fish populations “are going to boom” this year, which could justify the higher numbers.
But Griffin Carpenter, an economic modeler specialized in natural resources management at the New Economics Foundation and the author of the policy paper, warned “that could make things worse.”
“The science doesn’t really work like that, you cannot add up all of the quotas or you’ll eliminate the entire fish stock,” he said.
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