Cet article a été publié en français le 21.03.2023, et nous l’avons traduit en anglais à la demande de plusieurs de nos partenaires.
This Wednesday, March 22, 2023, hundreds of French fishers organized a protest in in Rennes to express their dissatisfaction. This historic movement of fishers has been developing for a few weeks and emerges from various concerns. As you may know, French fishing is currently going through a crisis, and according to Pleine Mer, this crisis may only be the beginning. Faced with this situation, we have decided to consult our members and supporters, whether they are fisher, activists, scientists, or fish consumers. These exchanges lasted several weeks and led to the writing of this article.
Indeed, despite the reassuring tone of the political class and the institutions representing the fishing sector; the problems are numerous and are likely to last. At Pleine Mer, it seems to us that these problems all have one thing in common: how to achieve the transition to sustainable fishing while attending to socio-economic needs? It also seems to us that these many problems still have solutions that can be considered opportunities for the fishing industry. Everything will depend on how each issue is dealt with politically. Unfortunately, the experience of Brexit suggests the worst: the political class and the representative bodies of the fisheries sector have preferred to simply postpone dealing with the problems during the long years of negotiations, which has led to the current crisis: a fleet reduction plan that will retire 90 boats, including 4% of the Breton fishing fleet.
Thus, it will not be easy to « transform problems into opportunities »: the French artisanal fishing sector faces a political class totally disconnected from the realities of fishers, and « representative » institutions increasingly controlled by the influence of the industrial fishing lobby. Fishers have understood this well since they are asking for the dissolution of the National Fisheries Committee and Producer Organizations among the demands of the movement organized in Rennes on March 22. We hope that this article will allow you to see more clearly into the deep crisis that the fishing sector is currently going through and to collectively imagine solutions to this crisis. Here is the outline of this article:
- Brexit and the loss of fishing licenses in English waters, an example not to be repeated !
- Prohibition of dragging arts in MPAs in 2030: beware of socio-economic balances!
- Climate change, diesel prices and decarbonization of fisheries
- Spatio-temporal closure due to cetacean bycatch
- The lack of sailors and first-time installers: what transmission of the profession of sailor-fisherman?
- Overfishing and competition with industrial fishing
- Conclusion: is this transition positive for the profession?
1. Brexit and the loss of fishing licenses in English waters, an example not to be repeated!
“Who could have imagined the Brexit crisis?” … these are the kind of lies that the representatives of the French fishing industry would like us to swallow. Yet the negotiations that led to the UK’s exit from the European Union have been going on for years. With the consequences that fishing has been suffering for more than a year now: hundreds of fishing licenses removed, dozens of fishing companies affected, and a fleet reduction plan that will have the effect of destroying 90 French fishing vessels. How did we get here? How could the disastrous consequences of Brexit on French fishing have been avoided?
“The English will never close fishing areas to French boats, otherwise we will close the European market to British fishing products” … this is what we often heard in the corridors of the French National Fisheries Committee during the Brexit negotiations. And that’s also what we heard repeated in the French media: “rest easy, everything will be fine”.
Instead of preparing for the coming crisis, equipping French boats with positioning beacons (VMS/AIS which would have enabled French fishers to prove their presence in British waters), and negotiating in advance the conditions of the Brexit for fishers, the representatives of French fisheries preferred to postpone dealing with the problem. In other words, they preferred to move backwards in order to jump better. Instead of being clear with the fishermen from the start, instead of preparing for the transition and the reduction of the fishing fleet, the representatives of the fishing industry have denied the problem, with the disastrous consequences that we now see clearly in regions whose fisheries are truly devastated by the consequences of Brexit.
This is for example the case of the fishers of Hauts-de-France, already strongly impacted by competition with Dutch industrial fishing, and for whom the loss of licenses in English waters was a real coup de grace. In Brittany, too, the consequences are dramatic: now 45 boats are being destroyed, which directly threatens hundreds of jobs—in addition to fishers, we are also talking about fish auction employees, fishmongers and fish processing workers… Indeed, it is often said that a job at sea is equivalent to 4 jobs on land.
The example of Brexit is extremely important for understanding the rest of this article. Indeed, the other problems of the fishing sector currently lie before us. But if they are treated in the same way as the Brexit crisis… then we are heading straight for disaster for the fishing industry! It may be too late to avoid the Brexit crisis, but let’s avoid repeating the same mistakes for future crises , in other words: let’s anticipate!
2. Prohibition of towed gear in Marine Protected Areas in 2030: beware of socio-economic factors!
The subject has been on everyone’s lips for a few weeks: last February, the European Commission proposed to ban towed gear within the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) of the European Union. An announcement that did not fail to make many professional fishers who work today within these famous MPAs nervous.
But what is the towed gear in question? In France, these are mainly bottom trawling and dredging. The bottom trawl is a cone-shaped net that is towed across the bottom of the sea and is held open with two panels, allowing fish moving on the bottom to be caught. The dredge is a kind of metal rake fitted with a metal net, which scrapes the bottom to capture shellfish, often scallops. According to the scientific community, these two types of gear have an impact on the seabed, and in particular on the habitat of exploited species, which is why NGOs like Bloom have been campaigning for years for the banning of towed gear in MPAs .
So, yes, banning fishing gear that destroys marine habitats in an area dedicated to environmental protection is rather common sense, and at Pleine Mer we are in favor of environmental protection. Be careful though: in the current state of things, such a measure would have catastrophic socio-economic impacts, and artisanal fishermen have understood this well. In the bay of Saint-Brieuc, for example, covered by an MPA that spans 20% of its surface, it is clear that we are talking about family businesses that would be finished if the use of the dredge was prohibited from one day to the next.
In fact, to adopt a coherent discourse on the use of towed gear in MPAs, it is necessary to go back a few years. What is an MPA again? It is a marine area in which certain uses have been restricted in order to protect the environment. In practice, MPAs can be seen as a spectrum that ranges from an area off limits to all users, to an area where (certain types of ) fishing is prohibited. For twenty years now, the countries of the Global North, under pressure from various environmental NGOs, have set quantified objectives for developing MPAs: moving from 10% of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), then 20% and finally 30%. This encouraged a race to hit these targets as quickly as possible, and that’s where the problems started. Instead of defining priority areas to be protected, French governments have decided to define areas as “protected”, without regulating any use there. In other words, the objective was to cover as much of the area as possible defined as “protected”, without actually protecting them, in order to be recognized as achieving these famous objectives. This is what some NGOs have called “marine protected areas on paper” , since they are only protected on paper, but not in reality.
And what do the representatives of French fishing and the political class say to fishing professionals who have been questioning the logic of this process? « Rest easy, don’t worry, we will never ban fishing in marine protected areas, you can continue to fish without thinking about what this will mean in the future« . Exactly the same discourse as on the Brexit crisis … and this time the results could be even more dramatic now that a ban on certain fishing techniques is on the table, after telling fishers that MPAs would have no consequences.
This map of the MPA located in front of Granville illustrates the issue well: the entire area in orange dots is an MPA, and beyond that French fishers find themselves in English waters. When this MPA was set up, fishers were promised that it would have no impact on their activities.
In this region where dredging is highly developed, a ban of such methods in MPAs very directly threatens socio-economic needs along the coast.
So yes, in the long term, the trawl must be banned in MPAs, and we can even be more radical: in 30 years, the trawl will have disappeared, a bit like the gas powered car. For the moment, it is difficult to do without, but in the long term it will be necessary to phase out. But beware! Let’s not forget that hundreds of families currently depend on the trawl to earn their living. It is not a question of putting them on the street overnight because of hastily made political decisions. Plus, making all the trawlers suddenly disappear would be a tragedy for artisanal fishing, and a boon for industrial fishing lobbies, all too happy to get their hands on the fishing quotas of hundreds of scrapped artisanal boats.
Moreover, it is a bit risky to separate the boats which use “passive gear” and those which use “towed gear”. The reality is much more complex, and there is often a complementarity between the two, which are sometimes used by the same boats: showing the versatility of artisanal fishing. The shell dredger is the best example, since many boats use the dredge during the winter season, and work only with passive gear for the rest of the year. This is the case for many gillnetters-dredgers, trapnetters-dredgers or even trawler-dredgers, all over the English Channel/Atlantic coast. Thus, in the bay of the Seine, dredging actually allows many boats to stay afloat financially and to use passive gear the rest of the year. This problem is well summarized in this video published by a fisherwoman from Granville.
Let’s not forget either that the trawl is sometimes useful for passive gear: this is the case with the sandeel trawl, which fishers in southern Brittany rely on to fish for bait that is needed to line-fish bass, or the crab which has the same function in the ports of Charente-Maritime. More broadly, the shellfish trap boëte is often fished by trawl, as is the trap-boats in Granville, in northern Finistère, or in northern Cotentin.
So what to do? We have a few ideas, and we’ll deal with the trawl and the dredge separately.
First, the trawl
With regard to the use of the trawl in the MPAs , we must stop misleading fishers. Whether we like it or not, trawling will be prohibited in MPAs. Sooner or later, the direction of policy on this matter is clear. Nothing will change that. Public opinion wants it. Plus, you can’t say that areas are protected if you use fishing techniques that have an impact on the environment. So we might as well prepare for this ban, by working alongside fishers to preserve the jobs and fishing businesses that currently depend on trawling.
Instead, the presidential majority wants to be reassuring, by continuing to deny and postpone dealing with the real issues, as evidenced by the speeches of Pierre Karlseskind, president of the Fisheries Committee in the European Parliament who declared: » This ban does not make sense because it goes against the conservation objectives of these marine protected areas”. No need to be an expert in sustainable fishing to see the political lies of this deputy, who would do better to actually get to know the realities of the sector that his votes will impact. Hervé Berville, Minister of Fisheries, did not do much better by declaring:“France is totally opposed to the implementation of the ban on fishing gear in MPAs […] because all the countries that have set up marine protected areas find themselves sanctioned” .
Many artisanal fishermen have recently shared these two speeches on social networks. However, beyond being deeply anti-ecological, these speeches are above all misleading : let’s stop making fishers believe that this ban will not take place. Whether in 2030, 2040 or 2050, MPAs will eventually be closed to trawling, and this type of fishing gear is also weakened by other crises such as the price of diesel. Fishers will have to adapt: ??the sooner we support them, the better.
But how to adapt to such a change?
First of all, the location of MPAs should be reviewed. As explained above, these were hastily placed in areas that suited political representatives, disregarding ecological priorities. It is therefore necessary to consult scientists and fishers to collectively establish a coherent MPA network with environmental preservation objectives defined in advance.
Once the location of the MPAs has been defined with the fishers, it will be necessary to propose a progressive ban on trawling in the MPAs, for example by gradually reducing the number of days at sea authorized for towed gear in the MPAs, which would gradually allow them to adapt and find other fishing grounds. We could imagine a reduction of 10% per year over the first 5 years, then 20% per year for the following 5 years, giving fishers time to adapt and modify where and how they fish. We could also ban trawling in a progressive percentage of MPAs, increasing this percentage each year.
Finally, if we want to ban trawling in certain areas, we must support the development of new alternative fishing techniques to trawling in these same areas. To sum up, it is a matter of providing economic incentives for fishermen to modify their boats, by subsidizing them. At the same time, it will be necessary to abolish “trawl” licenses, while creating new licenses for the use of the new fishing gear developed. It takes time, and organization, but it is possible.
By combining a review of the location of MPAs, the gradual banning of trawling in MPAs and aid for the transition from trawling to other fishing gear, then it will be possible to gradually ban trawling in MPAs, while preserving jobs in the fishing sector. We must therefore start today, rather than telling fishers to carry on as if nothing needs to be done.
Second, the dredge
With regard specifically to the scallop dredge, we believe that the problem is quite different. (Here, we will not deal with the clam dredge or the mussel dredge, the subject is already complex enough!)
First of all, the socio-economic fabric in North Brittany and in all of Normandy are very largely based on the fishing of scallops by dredge. Without the harvest coming from the bay of the Seine, the majority of Norman boats would no longer be profitable and would go out of business. The dependence on this species of a large number of artisanal boats, therefore requires extreme caution. Moreover, if we take a single-species approach to fisheries management, the scallop is one of the best managed species in France: thanks to strict regulations, put in place by the fishers themselves, this seasonal fishery has a bright future ahead of it.
However, we can say it without a doubt: the dredge scratches the seabed, and damages ecosystems. The dredge is not a gear that is good for the environment, and the lack of fish in the bay of Saint-Brieuc and in the bay of the Seine is evidence of the impact of this fishing gear. Some scientists even speak of a simplified ecosystem or « cultivated field » to describe the Bay of Saint-Brieuc or the Bay of the Seine: very low biodiversity, but very high single-species production which supports many businesses, with regular reseeding of the resource, and even plowing if you want to push the metaphor!
Thus, one way to think about these dredged ecosystems, which represent negligible areas compared to trawled areas, is that they have been permanently modified by humans and will not return to their original state. In these areas, it seems reasonable to continue to practice scallop fishing with a dredge. If we extrapolate, the great mudflat and its langoustines can be analyzed in the same way: an ecosystem with little biodiversity, regularly plowed, and a strong single-species production which provides important socio-economic stability to a coastal region.
Does this prevent us from encouraging scallop fishing via diving and langoustine trap fishing when possible? Of course not! As Didier Gascuel explains in his book “La péchécologie – Manifesto for truly sustainable fishing” , the impact of fishing should be minimized wherever possible, and therefore a gradual transition to more gentle fishing techniques. So, no, we are not going to go diving for scallops in the middle of the bay of the Seine, at 35 meters deep, and you will always have to use fishing gear to go and collect these delicious shells at such depths. But, in certain areas of northern Brittany, in Glénans, in the harbor of Brest or around the Channel Islands, it is possible to invest sustainably in diving for scallops and it must be done by all means. For example, we can think of economic incentives to transform “dredged shell” licenses into “diving for shell” licenses.
It is complex to talk about the transition to sustainable fishing in concrete detail! That’s why it’s a lie to tell fishers “don’t worry, nothing will change”, when we know all the factors that influence the fishing sector, and all the divergent interests at play. If we want to avoid a major crisis, we must anticipate the closure of MPAs to towed gear, and propose solutions so that this change is gradual and benefits fishers who seek to transition to sustainable fishing techniques.
3. Climate change, diesel prices and fisheries decarbonization
It’s clear, climate change is here, and fishers are observing it every day. Once again, the fisheries representatives are a step behind, having been not far from the climate-skeptic discourse just a few years ago.
Fishing will be among the professions most impacted by climate change since it depends on a natural resource and the weather to work. However, fishers contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and therefore have an impact on climate change. This is why the European Commission has launched a major fisheries decarbonization plan. The goal? Minimize the use of diesel engines in fishing.
Once again the representatives of the fishers want to be reassuring: “rest easy, the hydrogen engine will solve the problem”. But current hydrogen engine prototypes would not sustain the fishing fleet in its current state, especially trawlers that need high draft power to pull the trawl.
And, what about the price of diesel increases? First, diesel is tax-exempt for professional fishers, that is to say that they do not pay tax on it. On top of this indirect subsidy, fishers currently receive aid for fuel. But wouldn’t all this money be better invested in the transition to fishing techniques that consume less diesel than trawling? The question needs to be asked.
In any case, fishers will have to be innovative in the face of the coming energy crisis. The Skravik project: a sail fishing business, for example, is an ambitious example of such innovation. This type of project must develop if we hope to maintain a fishing fleet despite the challenges fishers will eventually have to face due to the price of energy and particularly oil.
We can also imagine the development of alternative fuels, such as used frying oil which now supplies several artisanal boats on the island of Oléron, thanks to the Roule ma frite association . Other solutions can be envisaged such as synthetic diesel projects from algae. These possibilities have the advantage of operating with the engines that are already in boats today, which makes them excellent transition solutions. All that remains is to invest in their development: whether we like it or not, oil resources are rapidly running out and fishing will have to adapt.
4. Spatio-temporal closure due to cetacean bycatch
Banning trawling in MPAs almost stole the limelight, but a different issue has been on the cover of the newspapers for the past a few years: dolphins accidentally caught by fishermen in the Bay of Biscay.
Let’s be clear, no fisherman wants to catch a dolphin. Nonetheless, the number of accidental catches has increased sharply, and fishing has an impact on the dolphin population. The Sea Shepherd Association has filmed some of these catches at sea, and whatever one thinks of this kind of method, the problem remains: the dolphins have changed their behavior and they are caught in nets and pelagic trawls more and more more frequently in the Bay of Biscay. Fishers must therefore propose solutions to get out of this crisis which has lasted too long.
And guess what the strategy of the National Fisheries Committee is? The same as before: “rest easy, they are only ecologists-extremists-granola-eaters, there is no problem, we support you”. Except that in reality things have changed: the Council of State has just given 6 months to the State to set up spatio-temporal closures to reduce the number of dolphin catches.
What are spatio-temporal closures? It means closing the fishery in a certain area for a certain period of time. What if fishing companies are economically dependent on this area? They will pay the price. Not exactly in line with the optimism of the fishing authorities, who, again, did nothing for years.
We can, however, imagine some effective solutions.
First, encourage the reporting of incidental captures of dolphins. This information on the captures allows scientists to have data, which will help avoid the capture of cetaceans in the future.
Next, it would be quite possible to cross-reference the spatial data of dolphin catches, and the spatial data of the economic dependence of fleets concerned by the capture of dolphins. We could then establish areas of tension, as well as areas where the capture of dolphins is far too high compared to their socio-economic interest. Such areas could then be avoided by boats.
It is difficult to say whether pingers (acoustic devices placed on fishing gear which aim to scare cetaceans) are effective in the long term, and these acoustic devices also raise the question of noise pollution in the marine environment. However, fishers should encourage research into any kind of technology to avoid dolphin fishing.
Finally, the debate about cameras on board is complex. Who would want to be permanently filmed at their workplace? Of course, this is the case for many workers in the banking sector or in mass distribution. It is important to differentiate between a camera which films the bend of the trawl, and multiple cameras installed in the crew’s berths. Finally, it would seem normal to encourage the voluntary installation of cameras on boats, rather than waiting for these devices to be imposed by law. But, once again, institutions prefer to close their eyes rather than anticipate problems, and the profession risks paying the price.
5. The lack of deckhands and new entrants: the state of generational renewal for the profession of sea-fishers?
We often hear that the fishing sector lacks new deckhands and young people no longer want to set up as skippers. This situation poses major problems in terms of the operation and transfer of fishing businesses.
But what are we doing to attract new entrants? What living conditions are offered to them? Yes, the Fisheries Committee invests millions in communication campaigns that promote the profession of sea fishers. Having a job is good, but what are the working conditions? What are the salaries? Do women have a place there? How are you treated aboard when you are a worker of Senegalese or Ivorian origin?
Unfortunately, we know the answer to these questions: the boats are old and uncomfortable, the wages are less and less good, women suffer from sexism, and racism is still very present on some boats. When looked at this way, it is no surprise that there is a lack of generational renewal.
So let’s transform the sector. Let’s adapt boats and improve the quality of life for sailors with insulated berths or raised sorting mats. Let’s give women conditions that allow them to work in the same way as men. Welcome immigrant workers as a boon to the industry, rather than subjecting them to racism and paying them less than their white colleagues. Fishing can remain a profession of the future, but it must adapt to the new demands of workers, and not the other way around.
As for the installation of young fishing skippers, the work is immense. Speculation on fishing rights artificially raises the price of boats , and young people have to go into debt to buy boats that are already over 30 years old. The “Mer de Lien” project launched by Pleine Mer aims to tackle this problem through a citizen financing system. But this will not be enough, and it is necessary to reform in depth the laws which govern the distribution of quotas in France, based on article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy which stipulates that quotas and fishing rights must be allocated based on economic, social and environmental criteria.
6. Overfishing and competition with industrial fishing
The threat of overfishing, in which too much fishing effort leads to low catches, is no longer the same as it was some decades ago in Europe. This situation was endemic in European seas twenty years ago and the situation has since improved. However, in some areas overfishing remains a major problem, such as in the Mediterranean where 95% of fish stocks are overexploited.
To deal curb overfishing, we have solutions that have been proven effective in the Atlantic: minimum catch sizes, licensing, increasing the mesh size of the nets, and fishing quotas. An emergency plan in the Mediterranean is still urgently needed, otherwise the fishers will be catching nothing but jellyfish in a few years. And, of course there is still work to be done on the Atlantic coast, in particular the increase in the mesh of nets and trawls which would make it possible to increase the size of the fish caught, the volume of the catches, and the quantity of fish in the water within a few years.
When we talk about overfishing, we also must highlight the role of industrial fishing multinationals who are not impacted by the collapse of fish stocks as long as they can move their boats to other fishing grounds. Giant trawlers, Danish seine. These are ever more efficient fishing techniques that are currently threatening the English Channel and the North Sea, and the artisanal fishers who work there. But the industrial fishers have found a scheme: they have infiltrated the representative bodies of fishing in France to assert their interests. And the industrial fishing lobbies welcome the possible reduction of the artisanal fishing fleet, since they will recover the precious quotas of the artisanal fishing boats broken or sold off.
From there to say that the authorities of French fishing are gradually organizing the death of artisanal fishing, by ignoring the urgency of the issues in the sector, and that the whole thing is skilfully orchestrated by the evil lobbies of industrial fishing…is a bit exaggerated. But it is certain that the interests of small-scale fishers are very poorly represented today, and industrial fishers can sit back happily observing this disorganization of the small-scale sector, knowing that they will ultimately benefit from it. In this context we must remember that solutions do exist and artisanal fishers will have to organize themselves collectively to put them in place.
Conclusion: is this transition positive for the profession?
If we drastically summarize the points mentioned in this article, here are the main areas of transition which fishers will have to work on in the coming years:
From a political point of view:
- Overhaul of the institutions representing the fishing sector (committees and OPs) for a true representation of small-scale fishing and a fair distribution of quotas
- Application of Article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy, end of speculation on fishing rights
From a technical point of view:
- Support for fishing companies to transition away from trawling, which does not live up to the environmental requirements of consumers, nor is it able to deal with the increase in the price of diesel and it does not provide many jobs compared to the volumes caught.
- Development of alternative techniques to towed gear, wherever possible
- Increase in the mesh size of the nets to increase the volumes of fish caught and the biomass of wild fish
- Development of fossil fuel-efficient ships
- Development of vessels adapted to the new requirements of fishworkers
From an administrative point of view:
- Implementation of an « MPA plan » to establish real marine protected areas in consultation with fishers
- Establishment of strategic zoning to avoid the capture of cetaceans
Admittedly, it will not be easy in the first years, but the results of this work will not be long in coming and will be extremely positive for the profession:
- From the point of view of volumes landed, a drop will take place in the first years, but it will be offset by an increase in selling prices, particularly if we develop direct sales. Once the first years have passed, the volume of fish in the water will increase, and so will the volumes caught. In any case, the majority of boats will go from a race for volume to a search for value.
- From the point of view of marine resources , the prospects are very encouraging. If we increase the mesh size and there are real MPAs, then the number of fish will increase, as well as their size, and the overall resilience of ecosystems too, which is essential in the context of climate change.
- From the point of view of public opinion, this proactive approach by fishers will makes it possible to change the image of the fishers. In other words, more regulation now means less damage in the future, a more valued profession, and a better image in the eyes of the general public.
- From the point of view of generational renewal in the sector, it will be much more appealing to work on modern boats, with good working conditions, which respect the environment, which will encourage the recruitment of new deckhands and the sustainability of fishing companies.
- Finally, from a political point of view, this work by fishers will make it possible to refocus the debate on the real enemies of the environment: industrial salmon farming (tropical shrimps and other carnivorous fish) and industrial fishing. Fish eaters will have a much better image of artisanal fishing and they will quite naturally choose seafood products from French artisanal fishing, as a viable way to protect the environment.
Are artisanal fishers ready to take up this challenge? Many are already working on it and we must now increase the impact of these efforts by putting pressure on institutions and political representatives and reminding them that, “we will not rest easy, because everything is not alright.”