Europe and Central Asia
29 Sep 2015

How the fishing sector and environmental NGOs work together

A fishing boat on the North Sea, trailed by dozens of seabirds attracted by the fish caught. Photo: Sarahhoa/Flickr
By Euan Dunn

When I began working on marine policy twenty years ago, the atmosphere between fishermen and NGOs was hostile and confrontational.

It wasn’t just because the state of Europe’s fish stocks and the marine environment was much worse then, there was also hardly any dialogue with fishermen and the expectation was that they alone should change their ways, without outside assistance. Fishermen felt victimised. Pressured from all sides, including by the media, the fishermen responded by breaking the rules, which led to even more overfishing and a downward spiral of diminishing returns.

When we see how things have changed today – how BirdLife partners are working on deck with fishermen from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and Iceland to reduce seabird bycatch (the accidental killing of birds as they are caught during fishing) – we can see how far we have come.

Today, we have Advisory Councils (ACs), set up in 2004 by the European Commission and strengthened with the introduction of ‘regionalisation’ under the new (2013) Common Fisheries Policy. This delegated more decision-making on fisheries to sea basins like the North Sea (representing BirdLife, I have sat on the North Sea AC since it was first convened in 2005). The fishing sector has 60% of the seats at the AC table while the NGOs and other ‘interest groups’ occupy 40%.

The ACs vary in effectiveness but some, like the North Sea AC, are highly productive even though their advice is not always accepted by the Member States or the Commission. And they don’t just produce position papers. Critically, they help build trust and respect between fishermen and NGOs.

Even if we profoundly disagree at times, we learn the other’s point of view and get to know each other as individuals – not as faceless fishermen – around the table and later share a drink. This fosters grown-up dialogue and the likelihood of reaching a consensus. 

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It took a long time and some bold measures to get us here. Things began to change in the mid-1990s. The North Sea Ministerial Conferences introduced the novel idea of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (balancing the needs of societies and conservation of not just aquatic life but the whole marine environment), which brought NGOs, fishermen and ministers together to thrash out declarations.

In 1999, the visionary Fisheries Commissioner Emma Bonino reformed the EU’s Advisory Committee on Fisheries (now dismantled), boldly admitting NGOs as stakeholders for the first time. NGOs like the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) began sitting down with fishermen to seek the holy grail of ‘sustainable fisheries’. Finally the advent of the Advisory Councils enabled the first formal stakeholder participation at regional level.

However, no matter how close the fishermen and NGOs get, their priorities will always differ. So the stakeholder balance in the Advisory Councils needs to be maintained. This was thrown into sharp relief this week when an organisation called Blue Fish, set up to give a voice to fishermen in pursuit of sustainable development, sought a vacant seat as a NGO in the 40% of the North Sea AC’s executive committee (all the seats in the fishing sector’s 60% were already occupied).

The NGOs argued that Blue Fish did not belong among the NGOs and, when it came to the vote, Blue Fish’s application was narrowly defeated.

BirdLife and the other NGOs have fought hard to build a workable relationship with fishermen and we strongly felt that Blue Fish’s ill-conceived approach put this at serious risk. There will no doubt be other obstacles and conflicts ahead but NGOs and fishermen have come a long way in cooperating as stakeholders. 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.