23 January 2024
A groundbreaking report on the social-ecological transition of the fishing sector
23 January 2024
Faced with the environmental and social emergency and the lack of concrete scenarios to think about the future of fishing, BLOOM has launched a multidisciplinary research group dedicated to planning the social-ecological transition of fishing. The group, which includes researchers from L’Institut Agro, AgroParisTech and EHESS-CNRS, in collaboration with The Shift Project and the L’Atelier des Jours à Venir cooperative, has just published the first multi-criteria scientific assessment of the economic, social and ecological performance of French fisheries, entitled ‘Time for a U-Turn: for a social-ecological transition of the fishing industry.’
Firstly, by establishing a new methodology for drawing up an exhaustive ‘marine footprint’ of fishing activities, this assessment revolutionizes the way in which human activities at sea are evaluated in order to assess their ‘sustainability’. In the same way that a broad trend in economics is moving away from the idea that GDP is an adequate indicator for measuring the wealth of nations, the fishing sector can no longer be examined solely through the indicator of productivity. The ‘marine footprint’ argues for a much broader ecosystem approach than the current understanding of ‘sustainability’, taking into account the impact of activities on the abundance of target animal populations, the maintenance of biodiversity and habitat integrity, as well as a range of social and economic criteria such as public subsidies allocated to activities or jobs created per ton of fish caught.
Furthermore, this groundbreaking assessment of marine fishing activities, based on European public data, provides a coherent overview of the performance of the various segments that make up the French fishing fleet, enabling us to support rational public decisions that are beneficial to French society, employment, the health of public finances, marine ecosystems and the climate, as well as the restoration of our food sovereignty.
By simultaneously analyzing the social, environmental and economic impact of fishing activities, the decision to change course and win at all levels becomes fully apparent.
Very negative results for large-scale industrial fishing, which is dominated by trawl gear…
Research shows that industrial fishing, particularly trawls and seines over 24 meters in length, has a clear negative impact. Industrial trawls and seines (1) have a long list of environmental, economic and social drawbacks: destruction of the seabed, overexploitation of target species, massive catches of juvenile fish, low job-creation capacity, low added value, high carbon footprint and CO2 emissions. From an economic point of view and as an illustration, for the same catch in a wild environment (the ocean), industrial and deep-sea bottom trawlers generate 2 to 3 times fewer jobs and almost half the added value than fleets using passive gear (lines, traps and nets).
…dependent on public subsidies
Moreover, the profitability of fleets using bottom trawls depends on public subsidies: 1 kg of resources caught is subsidized at between 50 and 75 eurocents for fleets using bottom trawls and seines, while other fleets are subsidized at less than 30 eurocents per kilogram landed. The profitability of large bottom trawls and seines is therefore artificial, with exorbitant social and environmental costs borne by taxpayers and natural ecosystems. In contrast, the profitability of all passive fishing gear (2) does not depend on public funding. Thus, the multifactorial assessment prepared by the research group argues for an end to the massive subsidization of industrial vessels using trawls, especially bottom trawls (3).
Public subsidies allocated at cross-purposes to the necessary social-ecological transition: an exclusive report by BLOOM and the Rousseau Institute
Time for a U-Turn: the need to guide the fishing industry towards transition
The sector’s transition must allow it to maintain its most responsible and sustainable component: small-scale inshore fishing (vessels under 12 meters), which accounts for over 70% of all vessels, mostly using passive gear, and which is now in such decline that it is in danger of disappearing. While small-scale inshore fishing performs better on all indicators, it has one key problem: its impact on ‘sensitive’ species such as birds and marine mammals. The analysis does not distinguish between small-scale fishing operations, which perform very differently in this respect, but gives an overall indication: even the most responsible segments of the inshore fleet need to make progress on the essential issue of bycatch, since certain so-called ‘passive’ gear, such as nets or longlines, generate catches of birds or dolphins that must be avoided.
Small-scale inshore fishing (vessels between 0 and 12 meters in length), which accounts for the majority of the total number of vessels, represents a small volume of catches (10% of the total) but is able to generate added value and employment (19% and 21% of the total respectively). By way of illustration, the industrial pelagic trawler fleet generates 10 times fewer jobs per ton landed, although it receives 7 times more subsidies per job. As for the industrial bottom trawler fleet, it receives 5 times more subsidies per job than coastal vessels using passive gear, and almost twice as much per kilogram landed.
For decades, public authorities have supported the most socially, economically and ecologically damaging fisheries instead of promoting passive fishing, which is mostly inshore and undeniably more responsible in most areas.
The researchers’ assessment highlights the economic, social and environmental absurdities of the current management of the fishing industry and points the way to a possible future, both in France and in other EU member states. The fishing industry can reverse the current trends and put an end to its structural bankruptcy, provided that the means are used to support the development of a truly ‘sustainable’ fishing industry, a ‘pêchécologie’ (fishing ecology) (5), i.e. a fishing industry that minimizes the impact on the climate and living organisms, while contributing to European food sovereignty, maximizing employment and offering dignified socio-economic and human prospects.
(1) The demersal seine is a technological evolution of the bottom trawl. It consists of placing a funnel-shaped net on the seabed, connected at both ends to a cable which is deployed on the seabed, encircling an area of 3 km2. The cable is then vibrated to create a wall of sediment and pulled down to concentrate the fish in an increasingly smaller area. The final stage traps the fish in the net.
(2) In terms of gear, the fishing industry is divided into passive gear (nets, traps and lines) and trailing gear (dredges, trawls and seines). Source: https://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/00784/89603/96190.pdf. Dormant gear traps target species passively, relying on their movement or hunting behavior.
(3) The demersal trawl or bottom trawl is a cone-shaped net towed by a ship that catches marketable species located on or near the bottom, such as sole, cod, monkfish or langoustine. This gear, which scrapes the seabed, should not be confused with the pelagic trawl, which is towed in open water and catches species such as herring, sardines and mackerel.
(4) The Rousseau Institute is a think tank created by senior civil servants in 2020. It brings together “intellectuals, researchers, civil servants and workers from the private and public sectors. Its aim is to produce innovative, ambitious and operational public policy proposals”. Official website available at: https://institut-rousseau.fr/.
(5) Gascuel Didier, La Pêchécologie. Manifeste pour une pêche vraiment durable, Quae, 2023.