Fishing the Life out of the North Sea | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.03.2002
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Fishing the Life out of the North Sea

Europe’s Environment ministers are discussing the future of the North Sea in Bergen, Norway. Endangered habitats, fisheries, pollution by ships are some of the topics on the agenda.


Stocks of once-plentiful fish are in danger due to over-fishing

A huge, 3.5 metre set of scales stands in the Norwegian city of Bergen. One of the scale pans contains a poster of fish caught for human use and the words "This is what we have got....". The other, overweight scale pan, contains a poster of types of animals accidently caught in fishing nets: porpoises, baby cod and starfish with the words "....and this is what we waste!".

The scales, a symbol of protest against the number of marine animals accidently killed in fishing nets, were erected by the World Wildlife Fund in Bergen on Wednesday, the start of the 5th International North Sea Conference.

The European Union is the world’s third largest fishing power in the world. It is also the biggest market for processed products. Around 100,000 fishing vessels catch 6-7 million tonnes of fish each year, amounting to an estimated 7.3 billion euros.

Unwanted catch, or bycatch, may be as high as 75 percent in fishing nets. Harbour porpoises for example, do not see the nets, swim right into them and drown. Turtles, dolphins, monk seals and a myriad of other less well-known species are also caught in fishing nets, and often thrown back dead into the water.

The black porpoise, a small, swift wale which is found in the seas around Chile, Uruguay - and the North Sea - is also a frequent victim to fishing nets. Of those 170 000 wales in the North Sea, 7000 are killed due to nets each year.

According to Christian von Dorrien from WWF’s European Fisheries Campaign, "more than half a million tonnes of unwanted animals thrown back into the sea dying or dead is a terrible and unnecessary waste". WWF is just one of the environmental groups calling on the world’s environmental ministers to ensure secure environmental protection for the sea’s flora and fauna, including those caught accidently in fishing nets.


A heron lies smeared in oil on Friday March 30, 2001 in the waters at the small island Baagoe in Southern Denmark. Thursday a wide gash was ripped into the side of the Marshall Islands registered oil tanker Baltic Carrier after a collision with the Cypriot freighter Tern in the Baltic Sea. Some 1,900 tons thick black oil was spilled into the sea.

High bycatch rates are just one of the environmental topics up on the agenda of the International North Sea Conference in Bergen. Environmental ministers from Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland will be will be taking a closer look at measures to improve the situation of natural marine habitats, endangered by ship pollution, hazardous substances, eutrophication, pollution from offshore installations, radioactive substances and fisheries.

Their aim, as stated in the First International Conference on the Protection of the North Sea, held in Bremen in 1984, is "to provide political impetus for the intensification of the work within relevant international bodies, and to ensure more efficient implementation of the existing international rules related to the marine environment in all North Sea States".

High up on the agenda in Bergen is the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, which was created in 1971 to manage the fisheries sector in the EU and contains binding legislation for all EU member states.

According to WWF, insufficient measures to minimise effects on marine environment, unsuitable fisheries agreements, a failure to deal with over-capacity and the inappropiate use of subsidies has led to the loss of thousands of fishermen’s jobs, the steady decline in fish stocks and millions of Euros wasted on state subsidised, too large fishing fleets.

Fishing fleets returning to shore with empty holds, is not new to the EU’s member states. Subsidies to the German fishing sector for 2000-2006 amount to 289 million Euros. Germany is supportive of reform and wants to see environmental issues at the heart of the EU’s fisheries policy.

Arguments that a cut in fishing fleets could lead to mass job losses for Germany’s 4,370 fishermen have put Germany’s environmental minister Jürgen Trittin under pressure, who is in favour of reform. But between 1990-1997 alone the number of fishermen in the EU fell by 60,000 - a drop of 13 percent, despite CFP.

The World Wildlife Fund is calling for a 40 percent reduction in over-capacity in the next 5 years, based on a regional analysis of resources and capacity, a reduction in subsidies, changed spending patterns that support the transition to a long-term sustainable fishing sector and sustainable fisheries access agreements that respect the needs of local people while being in line with international agreements. Furthermore, an ecosystem-based management framework should be implemented to minimise the effects of fishing activities and secure long-term viability of all marine habitats and species.

Political commitments

The International North Sea Conference is not itself legally binding. But the decisions made by the ministers present are political commitments which have played an important role in influencing legally binding environmental management decisions both nationally and within the framework of competent international bodies.

Last week, Prime Ministers and party leaders from the Party of European Socialists, agreed at the Socialist Summit in Barcelona to reduce the size of the European fishing fleet, to reduce fishing subsidies in order to phase out over-capacity, and to reduce bycatch.

The International Conference has led to measures such as a ban on the dumping and incineration of waste at sea and on offshore installations.

These measures, however, are too late, the North Sea’s ecosystem is still severly out of balance. According to Stephan Lutter, head of WWF’s delegation at the Conference, "despite ground-breaking Ministerial commitments in the 80s and 90s, the North sea continues to be over-used by human activities, including offshore oil and gas platforms, pipelines, military activities, shipping lanes, windfarms and fish trawlers ploughing the sea bed."

As Europe’s environmental ministers discuss the future of the North Sea, wales, starfish and sea-birds are being caught accidentally in nets, only to be thrown back into the water, half-dead and injured.

"Time is running out for marine wildlife unless governments commit themselves to make space for nature now," Lutter said.

WWW links