French fisheries scientist Alain le Sann has written extensively about conservation and management, particularly how it impacts artisanal fishermen. He argues here, in a personal piece translated and abridged by Hull University academic Magnus Johnson, that European fishermen are being frozen out of the debate about MPAs, when they should be at the heart of discussions

For decades, many biologists and ENGOs, supported by international organisations, public agencies, private donations and multinational companies have imposed the idea that one of the best ways to preserve marine biodiversity and fisheries resources is to have more no-take zones (NTZs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

For the public, sensitised by catastrophising speeches and films, or people exalting the beauty of marine reserves, this idea is simple and obvious.

Yet NTZs in particular raise huge questions. They do not always solve the problems of biodiversity loss, and pose well-documented problems of exclusion. Even within the conservation movement, many scientists and environmentalists question the methods, results and social consequences, sometimes dramatic, of setting up MPAs.

Despite the funding, complacency and arrogance of big ENGOs, allowing them to monopolise the media, there is a real debate on the effectiveness of their methods and goals, and their compatibility with human rights.

The concept of NTZs has its foundation in the idea that only private ownership can protect the environment – that the people who use a resource daily are incapable of looking after it or recognising its aesthetic value.

Beneficiaries of these marine clearances include powerful companies interested in space for wind farms, and mineral and living resources, and well-funded ENGOs.

These are the ENGOs that shape public opinion so that the privatisation of the oceans is accepted. They justify the eradication of coastal communities’ rights by the loss of biodiversity and the need to involve external organisations to save the seas.

For them, fishermen do not have rights to common resources, that are mostly public property. Only state ownership, on behalf of the nation, can assign access, with financial and ecological conditions. Reference to biodiversity as the common heritage of humanity is used against those who have used shared resources for centuries, but without recognised property rights.

The focus on impacts is almost always based on the opinions of biologists rather than social scientists, who might not share the conservation movement’s romantic view of the sea as wilderness – or their opinion of fishermen as criminals who should be excluded.

On land, we accept the fact that we have completely changed our environment, and even admire the beauty of national parks such as the Cairngorms and North York Moors that are the product of long-term human activity. The sea, however, lives in our imaginations – a world that is not permanently occupied by humanity, and is therefore truly wild.

The only permanent users of the sea, until recently, were fishermen. For centuries, the oceans have been the workplaces of fishermen. They have profoundly altered marine ecosystems and the seabed on the continental shelves, sometimes to the risk of extinction of some species. However, this is nothing compared to man-made changes on land. It is still possible to dream of the existence of oceans untouched by human intervention.

Unlike native peoples, who have some rights based on legislation such as the Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, fishermen have no legal protection against well-established law that is becoming increasingly binding at an international level. Real threats to biodiversity serve as an alibi for the exclusion of fishermen, who are accused of being responsible for ecosystem degradation.

The need for urgency is constantly used to justify the creation of NTZs. ENGOs try every possible means to persuade the public that NTZs are the most effective way to restore resources. This may be true – they are effective for biodiversity – but for fishing, the impact on resources is far from being generalised.

The effect is often neutral on fisheries resources, because the pressure on other areas compensates for the end of fishing in NTZs. The problem is not simple; for some small-boat fishermen, the location of NTZs makes their businesses unviable. Thus fishermen’s representatives in international conferences on biodiversity are often allied with indigenous delegates.

ENGO pressure, acting on the perceived state of emergency, opens the way to a weakening of the occupation
of marine space by fishermen. Once this hurdle is passed, the enclosure movement at sea can develop and fragment the ocean among various interests: conservationists, mining activities for rare minerals, energy, tourism, aquaculture, etc. The greediest are the conservationists, who use the sensitivity of public opinion to impose their wishes.

In the future, space devoted to fishermen will be increasingly limited. The value of ecological services fishing renders is low compared to that generated by tourism, extraction activities, energy, etc. Unfortunately for them, European artisanal fishermen are not indigenous and have more alternatives than fishermen in the global south. They fish, often risking their lives in areas they know like the back of their hands, so as to feed their family and their countrymen – but they have no rights. They will have even fewer with scientists, ENGOs and many elected representatives who believe that fish resources are public or private property but never a common one – the common property of fishermen.

Nobel prize-winning economist Ellinor Ostrom used hard evidence to show that collective management of fisheries resources works. But it is complicated, and the simplistic message promoted by ENGOs penetrates the public and political consciousness so much more easily. The knowledge accumulated by generations of fishermen and their experience of a fluctuating resource is disregarded.

All that ENGOs want to see tolerated is the touching scene of the traditional life of a few fishermen working in the ‘wilderness’, with little boats and primitive gear. This minimalist vision of fishing does not fit with our need for food, nor does it take into account the diversity of fisheries.

We urgently need to recognise the collective rights of fishermen – rights which also include responsibilities. Then they will be able to fish in collaboration with scientists and ENGOs respectful of these rights.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here


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