- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

ADRA, Spain

The catch of the day brings up a squirming pan-demonium of creatures from the deep: sea bream and red snapper, miniature lobsters, an electric ray packing 150 volts, a baby octopus watching with one unblinking eye.

But skipper Mariano Lopez, gazing at this mound of exuberance on his trawler’s deck, is disappointed. Like many patches of the Mediterranean, this overworked fishing ground is not yielding the bounty it once did.

“There should be twice as much,” he said, shaking his head.

Fishermen were long seen as Europe’s last true hunters, but the romance that comes with the struggle against nature has dwindled as fast as the once-bountiful fish. The European Union has imposed fishing curbs and other measures to keep Mediterranean and Atlantic waters alive — policies the fishermen say are destroying their traditions and livelihoods.

But Europe’s campaign to save fishing stocks could be a losing battle.

North Sea stocks of cod — the emblematic fish of the Atlantic — have dropped by three-quarters in 30 years, according to EU figures, and special EU campaigns to revive the species in the past three years have failed. Stocks of bluefin tuna, once the pride of the Mediterranean, have dropped by 80 percent in that time.

The situation is no different in the rest of the world. The journal Science warned recently that 29 percent of seafood species have collapsed — meaning that stocks are down 90 percent or more from peak levels — and that all commercial species will follow suit by 2048 if current trends continue.

Trading blame

European fishery’s precipitous decline has created a bitter cycle of recrimination.

The fishermen are angry at the bureaucrats and environmentalists. EU bureaucrats point the finger at fishermen. Environmentalists criticize both fishermen and bureaucrats.

“Now they look at us like criminals. … They want to massacre us,” said fisherman Jean-Marie Wacogne, 56, in Boulogne, France’s biggest fishing port.

But at the Nausicaa national sea center just across from Boulogne’s port, director-general Philippe Vallette said fishermen such as Mr. Wacogne — a veteran with more than four decades at sea — are not in tune with reality.

With swift moves, he turned the statistics into a graph on a blackboard, with the lines inevitably pointing downward. “This is something the fishermen do not want to see,” he said.

Mr. Vallette’s demonstration drew parallels between the current state of Europe’s cod stocks to what happened off the Canadian province of Newfoundland in the past two decades.

The Grand Banks off Newfoundland had been plentiful since fishermen first set sail there looking for the staple, which has fed millions in Europe since the Middle Ages. In the 1980s, Canadian fishermen scoffed at warnings from scientists that stocks were diminishing, even though they could see that the fish were getting smaller, a key indicator of overfishing.

“All of a sudden, they had to say: ‘Oh no, there are none left,’ ” Mr. Vallette said.

The future of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna is just as dire.

It used to be commonplace for fishermen to catch tuna in the Mediterranean weighing up to 1,100 pounds. But as prices for the fish rose worldwide in the past 25 years, industrial high-seas vessels jumped in to make money from the growing appetite for sushi and sashimi. Demand for sushi-grade tuna from increasingly affluent China has exacerbated the stress on stocks.

Monster-size tuna are now extremely rare, and fishermen are sapping stocks further by catching very small tuna before they can reproduce,and putting them in cages to be fattened until they are big enough for sale.

With large, top-grade bluefin tuna fetching up to $52,000 at Tokyo wholesale markets, Mediterranean vessels still go after the ever-scarcer big fish, eliminating the specimens that lay the most eggs.

“So now the problem is that a kind of pincer effect is created,” said Ricardo Aguilar, head of research for the European office of the environmental group Oceana. “On one hand, you remove the reproducers, and on the other, you capture the young fish before they can reproduce. The worst thing is to have both extremes.”

As a result, he said, the species might be commercially extinct in 10 to 15 years.

‘Hard life with no future’

In its heyday, Adra was one of the most important fishing ports of southern Spain. Twenty years ago, it boasted 15 large trawlers and at least 50 smaller boats. Now, there are about 15 in all. Small vessels once fished anchovies in waters off Morocco. Stocks were fabulously rich.

“For us, the anchovy was blue gold,” said Jose Nadal, 45, a fisherman turned auctioneer at Adra’s fish market. Those days are long gone.

“This is a hard life with no future because there are fewer and fewer fish,” said Eduardo Ferres, a crew member on Mr. Lopez’s 80-foot boat. His windburned face is etched with the fatigue of 13-hour workdays that begin at 5 a.m. “I am 47. I look 57,” he said.

Fishermen across Europe are going out of business. In the past decade, employment has collapsed at a rate of 6 percent per year. In a seafaring nation such as Portugal, employment in the fisheries sector fell from 38,700 in 1990 to 21,345 in 2004. In Britain, it went from 21,582 to 11,720; in France, from 26,851 to 18,415.

Across Europe, the scarcity of local fish has led consumers to scramble for seafood from remote corners of the world. At the Viszooi fish restaurant at The Hague, late-night diners got their bluefin tuna sashimi from Sri Lanka, not the Mediterranean. Even Britain’s lowly fish-and-chips shops have replaced local cod and haddock with frozen catches from as far as New Zealand.

The European Union has recognized the necessity for urgent action but has been hampered by the need to satisfy competing national interests. In the dead of night on Dec. 21, bleary-eyed ministers finished three days of negotiating the annual cuts on fishing in the bloc in what has become a pre-Christmas rite.

Scientists had advised a full ban on cod catching in the North Sea, but the EU nations settled on a 14 percent cut, enraging environmentalists.

“Political horse-trading on quotas continues, while our oceans are facing a crisis,” said Carol Phua of the World Wildlife Fund. “They are shooting themselves in the foot.”

EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg defends the bloc’s common fishing policy, saying it has at least slowed the pace of decline.

“If every member state were left to its own, the risk would be to have a race for the strongest fleet to catch as many as one can in the short term.”

All too often, fishermen also land fish illegally in port. Ms. Phua estimated that more than 40 percent of bluefin tuna catches in the Mediterranean are illegally landed to escape quota constraints.

On a recent morning in Boulogne, Henri Hellin threw up his arms in exasperation at the sight of the overnight shipment at the dockside processing plant he manages.

He had found that 15 percent of the red fish were undersize, too young. He was fuming: The fish should never have been caught, never have slipped through port controls and never arrived at his door.

“There are still far too many excesses. This makes me so angry,” he said.

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