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

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.

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.

Read more on how this collaboration came about here.

Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy, RSPB

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