Nieuws - 15 september 2010

Dialogue with fishers improves policy making

Joris Tielens

Fishers are playing bigger roles in fisheries policy. Nothing but good can come from this, according to PhD candidate Luc van Hoof.

Fishing villages such as Urk are losing their identity gradually.
Before the nineties, the quantity of fish allowed to be caught at sea was determined by the government with input from scientific research, says van Hoof.  Quotas were imposed on fishers. However, fishers were always at odds with ecologists and committed fraud to dodge the rules. But the resulting fines were low. The fish auctions also perpetuated this fraud, a situation which created a stumbling block for CDA minister Gerrit Braks in 1990.
Something had to change in policy making. The first attempt in improvement involved transferable fishing rights. Fishers were allowed to buy and sell quotas among themselves. Van Hoof: 'That was an elimination race in which stronger companies bought quotas from the weaker ones.' Overfishing went down indeed because of fewer ships.
Half of the fishers to go
Meanwhile, fishers did not do well economically. Since 2000, the cutter fleet has been reduced by half, and fishing villages such as Urk have been losing their identity gradually. Even now, Van Hoof says, half of the fishers would have to go for the remaining fishers to have reasonable earnings. 'But profit comes only fourth for a fisher. Their first priority is continuity, followed by a business successor and being part of a fishing community.'
Economist Van Hoof knows the fishing sector like the back of his hand. He was for many years head of fisheries research at LEI and works currently at Imares. After the fishing rights, there are more far-reaching forms of participation by fishers in policy making. Under co-management, fishers and the government agree on when and how much to fish. As a result, the fish supply is spread throughout the year, which is better for pricing.
Then comes the collaboration between fishers and environmental organizations. An example is the covenant concerning mussel fishing in the Waddenzee.  'There had been a really big dispute concerning the Waddenzee. For years, environmental organizations fought fisheries in court', says Van Hoof. Agreement among the parties was reached in the covenant. A covenant concerning the North Sea was also made among fishers, NGO's and the government. That brought huge investments in technical improvements to boats, resulting in less side catches thrown overboard nowadays. Fish would soon be MSC certified.' 
Amazing speed
Van Hoof concludes that nothing but good can come from participation by fishers in policy making. 'And this has taken place with amazing speed. The sector has, within a short period, changed from one with self-centred companies sitting in the dock to an open sector which recognizes its responsibility to society.' The burden of proof, according to Van Hoof, has therefore been reversed. While the government - with the help of scientists - used to impose restrictions on fisheries, the fisheries are now making themselves accountable to NGO's and the public. The government no longer tries to prove that fisheries cause damages, whereas the sector itself has to prove that it is fishing sustainably.
Van Hoof is graduating from his doctoral studies in the Environmental Policy Group of Professor Tuur Mol. He will defend his thesis, titled 'Who rules the waves' on 15 September.