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One Man's Opinion: Fishermen need more than a Band-Aid

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
August 01, 2008

It's hard to pick up a newspaper or a magazine without reading about the pains of soaring fuel prices. For fishermen, the pain has been particularly acute. While U.S. fishermen have stoically suffered in silence, that's not the case elsewhere.

After blockading ports in May, hundreds of European fishermen tromped off to Brussels to protest the high cost of fuel and the low price of fish. Fishermen are a crusty, independent lot, but few people expected this protest to turn into the melee it did. After surrounding the EU headquarters for hours, fishermen started throwing firecrackers and rocks and shooting flares at police, who called in water cannons and helicopters. As the fishermen retreated they broke into other 
EU buildings. Order was eventually 
restored, but only after 74 fishermen were hauled off to jail.

Irish fishermen joined the fray and blockaded the ports of Cork and Waterford in June to send a message that they could not keep fishing as long as they were losing money every time they left the dock. In addition to outrageous fuel costs, the Irish fishermen were protesting the growing supply of cheap imports, especially from Iceland, and illegally caught fish, which have helped keep fish prices low. To make matters worse, Irish fishermen say the Byzantine EU regulations require them to discard a lot of the fish they do catch and throw the dead fish back overboard.

Japanese fishermen decided they, too, had had enough of high fuel prices and convinced some 200,000 boats to tie up this July to get the government's attention. Like fishermen in Europe, the Japanese fleet wanted a government handout to offset the high price of fuel.

Over the short term, politicians are likely to avoid a big stink by agreeing to some of their fishermen's demands. Longer term, though, the fishing industry almost everywhere needs some serious restructuring to live in what increasingly looks like a sustained period of very expensive oil.

Even before the recent surge in oil prices, in most fisheries around the world there were too many boats chasing too few fish. Now that $100-a-barrel oil seems like a bargain, these fisheries can support even fewer boats. Fisheries managers need to face the fact that after years of dragging their feet they will have to change the way they manage their fisheries. Boats and fishing jobs will simply have to go.

In Killybegs, Ireland's largest fishing port, most of the pelagic fleet is tied up for almost nine months a year, hardly an efficient use of men or boats. If consumers aren't willing to pay more for fish - and given the economic outlook in the United States and EU that's a reality that could be around for some time - fisheries managers are going to have to find ways to make fishermen more efficient. That means finding ways to let fewer boats catch more fish per trip.

In places like the EU, where multiple countries share a common fisheries resource, it will be a monumental task given its bitter legacy of fish fights. Still, if fisheries managers keep doling out Band-Aids instead of real solutions, fishermen's blockades, tie-ups and protests could become a permanent feature of the global fisheries landscape.


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle



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