Mike Park remembers when he first started working the cod boats out of Aberdeen, on Scotland's northeastern coast. "The fish were plentiful and the boats few," he says. That was nearly 30 years ago. "Then the boats became plentiful," says Park, 43, "and the fish few." Today fish populations have dwindled so dramatically that the European Union's fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, is calling for an 80% reduction by 2003 in catches of the most popular commercial species in European waters. Fischler's proposal doesn't go far enough for some scientists, who warn that if even more drastic measures are not taken, depleted stocks may never recover. They are calling on the E.U. to ban trawlers from taking cod, haddock and whiting from the North Sea altogether.
But even Fischler's proposal is enough to terrify and enrage fishermen. Alex Smith, chairman of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, claims that if fishery is reduced by 80%, the whole industry will collapse, at a cost of 20,000 jobs. To demonstrate their opposition to the proposed cuts, hundreds of fishermen from several European countries last week motored out from North Sea ports and obstructed shipping routes.
The battle will be joined this week at a meeting in Brussels to discuss the future of the Common Fisheries Policy. Fischler will back up his 80%-reduction call with evidence from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ices), which has calculated that cod stocks are at an all-time low, only 10% of what they were in 1970. According to Robin Cook, director of the Fisheries Research Services laboratory in Aberdeen, "You shouldn't let a fish stock get below 25% of its unfished state because once the fish have gone below that point, no one knows if they will ever come back."
While acknowledging that there is a serious problem created by overfishing cod, fishermen dispute the scientists' figures, pointing out that ices receives funding from the E.U. Based on fishermen's own experience over the past year, Smith maintains that "fish stocks are not in such a bad state as people think. The haddock stock is at its highest level for 30 years, whiting at its best for 10 years, saithe at its highest for 20 years." Yet fishermen are desperate. They can see their livelihoods and way of life slipping away. "We do want the cod to recover," says Smith, "and we're doing our bit." The North Sea is two years into a cod-recovery plan, which is supported by fishermen and involves mothballing 20% of the fleet and increasing the mesh sizes of nets from 100 mm to 120 mm. The larger mesh size allows younger fish to escape and, it is hoped, breed. The target is to see an annual 30% increase in fish stocks. Park claims that the plan is working: "Cod has turned the corner. The stock is 27% bigger than last year."