Fishing- Why we must ‘discard’ any report from the new economics foundation - UPDATE 20/4/15


UPDATE 20/04/15

I received the following unsatisfactory response from the New Economics Foundation. Read my reply

I read the recent report by the New Economics Foundation, ‘Landing the blame: Overfishing in Northern European Waters’, with growing incredulity.  This ‘scientific’ paper seeks to allocate blame for over-fishing in the Northern European waters.  At its heart is an ‘overfishing league table’ , and right at the top - offender in chief - is the UK, seemingly twice as bad as the next culprit.

Such were the flaws in the paper, that I phoned the New Economics Foundation and spoke to one of the authors.  Long and short of it, after discussing these flaws, which ranged from inaccurate statements in the body of the text and misleading omissions in the table, to an airbrushing of the serious efforts made by Scottish fishermen to delivering sustainable fisheries, the author surprised me: he agreed with me.  He also agreed to correct the factual errors and inaccurate presentation.  So far, so good.  All seemed hunky dory.

Then came an email from the author:

‘You make a legitimate point re: the role of Norway and Iceland in overfishing.

'We think this point is acknowledged in the report but agree that we could have made that more explicit.

'Unfortunately we will not be able to make any corrections or statements at this stage. But we'll take this into account for future pieces of work’.

So what are the errors?  Well, first and foremost the UK and Scotland do not top the league table of over-fishing in Northern European waters.  That would be Norway, followed by Iceland. The author agreed and was happy to concede that these nations would be considerably higher up the ‘league table’ than all of the EU member states.  Indeed they would top the table by a country mile.  Creating a league table that leaves off the top two ‘perpetrators’ is certainly a sin of presentation if nothing else. Given the tone of the paper, it begs the question, why is the paper not directed primarily at Norway and Iceland?

In terms of the fish species that top the table of over-fished species by volume - blue whiting and mackerel - the author conceded that the behaviour of Iceland and the Faroes in terms of mackerel, and Norway in terms of blue whiting, were principally responsible for the endangerment of these species.  Not only this, but they posed a serious threat to the Marine Stewardship Council certification of the mackerel fishery, which Scottish fishermen have strived so hard to achieve.

The statement that, ‘At the December Fisheries council, ministers and representatives agree to fishing limits for the vast majority of commercial EU fish species…’ is just plain wrong. The vast majority of stocks important to Scotland are agreed during bilateral negotiations between the EU and Norway, which take place in November.  Given that it is a bilateral negotiation, it is difficult to argue that the principal driver is the EU alone, let alone assert as later, that it must be the UK, since it catches a lot of fish. The allegation that because the UK is an important fishing nation its government negotiators - and Mr Eustace and Mr Lochhead are mentioned by name - are the drivers of over-fishing is just bunk. Further, I am unclear why the authors thought it was necessary to personalise the debate in such a way.

So how exactly did the authors come to level their accusation against Scottish and UK ministers?  Have a wee look at the paragraph below, excerpted from the paper, which outlines how the authors reached their conclusions.

‘This briefing series reveals which member states and ministers are behind decisions that go against the EU’s public’s collective interest.  We do this by analysing the outcome of the negotiations, estimating which member states end up with a higher share of stocks fished above scientific advice. We can assume these member states are the main drivers of overfishing either because they are actively pushing fishing limits to be set above scientific advice or by failing to prevent it.’

First, there is no need to ‘estimate’ the share of stocks fished by any nation; they are allocated according to an agreed formula, termed the ‘Relative Stability Key’.

Second, assuming that member states which have a large share of a catch must automatically be the ‘drivers’ of over-fishing is as daft as it is simplistic.  In the simplistic approach of the authors, since UK fishermen are entitled to catch a significant share of certain fisheries, and since certain fisheries are over-fished, the UK government negotiators must be one of the main drivers of overfishing. Setting aside the role of Norway and Iceland discussed above, this kind of logical fallacy has no place in a paper that claims serious scientific credibility.  All cats have four legs, a dog has four legs, therefore a dog is a cat.

Fishermen from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales have made progress in developing sustainable approaches to fisheries. Several fisheries are now certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, representing the highest status of sustainability. There is still much to do to secure Europe’s fishing future - fishermen would agree with that - but to talk of ‘over-fishing league tables’, to 'name and shame’ negotiators, to bundle fisheries together irrespective of their sustainability status is not only unhelpful but destructive.

If you want a more refined approach to understanding the status of the EU’s fish stocks, go here

As the assessment shows, it isn’t all good news by any means, in some cases it is troubling indeed, but at least it is fairly presented, and doesn’t try to take cheap shots.

I suppose the report by the New Economics Foundation might have some value: by tomorrow it will be wrapped around a fish supper.