Hooking the Reader

Dublin meeting highlights reporting challenges related to oceans, seafood

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, as the old saying goes. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat the rest of his life. But that presumes there remain plenty of fish in the sea and journalists to help monitor them.

Unfortunately, both are increasingly risky assumptions, as news outlets have been hammered by cutbacks in recent years and oceans have been devastated by a wide range of stresses, including pollution, warming induced by climate change, ocean acidification (another insidious impact of greenhouse gas emissions), tourism in fragile marine environments and, perhaps most dramatically, overfishing.

So perhaps that old saying needs a corollary: Teach people how to manage fisheries—and journalists how to cover them—and we’ll continue to have a sustainable source of protein and delicious seafood for future generations to enjoy.

As it stands, it seems unlikely we’ll be able to count on this resource in the future. About 25 percent of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and another 52 percent are fully exploited. These estimates are based on officially reported figures from the seafood industry, which are notoriously unreliable, but the more targeted studies—it’s now estimated that up to 90 percent of the world’s big fish have been fished out—suggest the situation may be even worse than it appears.

Perhaps some progress has been made toward teaching journalists to better cover these issues, however. Oceans and fisheries are particularly hard issues to report on because most of the action takes place underwater, out at sea, and out of sight. It also suffers from many of the other problems that make environmental issues so difficult to cover: the damage tends to be incremental - rather than sudden and sensational - and widely dispersed.

Another reporting challenge is that figuring out fisheries also turns out to be incredibly complex. It’s full of mind-numbing acronyms — like MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield), TAC (Total Allowable Catch) and ITQs (Individual Transferable Quotas). It’s about as complicated to explain as climate change, agreed a group of reporters who participated in a Journalism Conference on European Fisheries last month in Dublin, Ireland conducted by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, where I’m executive director.

Europe is at a particularly interesting moment in regards to its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), now slated for comprehensive reforms. According to an article in The Guardian quoting Dr. Paul Connolly, the director of fisheries science services at Ireland’s Marine Institute, “88 percent of European fish stocks are over-exploited in relation to the maximum sustainable yield.” That’s partly because “the fishing limits that are set are on average 48 percent too high compared to scientific recommendations,” said Markus Knigge, research and policy director of the Pew Environment Group’s European Marine Programme, in Dublin. In a 2009 Green Paper, even the EC concluded that the CFP is a failure, in need of fundamental reform.

The root cause of this failure is that there are simply too many boats chasing too few fish. Oceana, a conservation organization released a report in September estimated that European Union subsidies to fisheries to be €3.3 billion per year, and the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia put global subsidies at between $30 and $34 billion per year. Enter the European Commision’s (EC) latest proposal for reform. Announced in July, Knigge feels the most important aspect of this reform concerns the basic limits that are set on fishing. He would like to see the new policy adopt some of the same language used in US policies, which state that fishing quotas “can’t exceed scientific advice.”

The EC reforms propose to reduce over-capacity by establishing a system of long-term fishing rights that supporters say have helped stabilize fisheries in the United States, New Zealand and Denmark. Known as individual tradable quotas (ITQs), or “catch shares” (in the US) or “concessions” (in the EU), such a system basically acknowledges that the state - in this case the EC - has been unable to reduce the pressure on fisheries, and creates a market to do so. The most profitable and efficient fishing fleets buy out their weaker competitors, yielding fewer boats on the high seas and higher profits for those that remain.

But ITQs remain controversial. Detractors such as Cecil Beamish, an Irish fisheries official, criticize them for unduly concentrating access to fisheries in the hands of a few wealthy interests, who then face pressure to increase their catch so as to pay off loans taken out to buy the rights. After the tradable system was introduced in the United Kingdom twenty years ago, he points out, many of the fishing rights there were bought out by Spanish commercial interests. Fearful of a similar result, he vows that Ireland, which will hold the EC presidency in early 2013, will oppose the introduction of an ITQ-like system.

Supporters of rights-based fishing, meanwhile, say the tendency toward concentration can be moderated by regulations that, as in Norway for instance, link the right to own certain quotas with specific geographical areas. Knigge argues that if the EC is going to adopt such concessions, as a public resource they should at least be auctioned off rather than given away.

All in all, it’s a fascinating debate over whether to regulate a resource via the market or command-and-control policies. But as John Mooney, a reporter with The Sunday Times, remarked at the Dublin conference, “my readers aren’t interested in ITQs,” and of course they’re hardly alone. So how can journalists select story angles that appeal to a lay audience?

The main way that most of us interact with fish, of course, is on our plates. So reporting on seafood, and how it reaches the dinner table, is one popular approach. Related angles could entail looking at some of the efforts at encouraging sustainable seafood - there are many, including the Slow Food Movement, the Marine Stewardship Council, Seafood Choices, and the pocket guides that let you know which fish are best to eat and buy. There have also been many good stories on the chefs, celebrity and otherwise, who have embraced efforts to make fishing sustainable. In Europe, they’ve formed the Euro-Toques network, which has now spread around the world.

Several of the journalists at the conference in Ireland, including Vanessa Quinto of the Italian agency Lumsanews, also vowed to look into why the price of some types of seafood is so much cheaper than others. Jan Oliver Loefken, an award-winning German science journalist, suggested doing pieces on the science and technology that goes into catching fish and managing fisheries. Pedro Caceres wrote a full-page spread in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper that focused partly on the economic angle of subsidies. The many international disputes about marine resources also serve as fertile ground for stories.

When I was a journalist in Thailand, I did numerous stories on fishing communities (not just their travails but also their successes) focusing in particular on a Muslim fishing village called Ban Chao Mai in the southern province of Trang. In the early 1990s, residents were in desperate straits: there were few fish left in the bay to catch, the mangrove forests were being cut down for charcoal, villagers were moving off to the city to look for jobs, and proud fishermen were reduced to eating canned tuna.

With the assistance of an NGO called Yadfon (“Raindrop”) and by organizing the local communities through the mosques, local fishermen agreed to stop using push nets that dug up the sea grass beds. Because the police were rarely much help, they risked life and limb to go out in their boats in the middle of the night and chase away the big trawlers—pirates, essentially—that would come into the bay to scoop up fish illegally.

The good news is that coastal ecosystems are so fertile many of them can bounce back quickly. At Chao Mai, within a couple of years the sea grass came back, and so did healthier fish stocks. The sea turtles and dugongs also returned, and that in turn brought more journalists and tourists. The villagers certainly still have their problems, but at least they now generally can make a living.

This is another angle for journalists to remember. It’s easy, when covering stories about the oceans or just about any environmental issue, to focus on the doom and gloom. Perhaps because of the old “if it bleeds, it leads” standard, it seems harder to convince editors to take stories on solutions and not just on problems. But they’re out there.

The Alaskan Pollock fishery, for instance, is often held up us a sustainable model. The Maine lobster fishery is also thriving, although that may be in part due to the decline of predators such as cod. In Europe, the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association is held up as an example of a trade association that has embraced enlightened policies, working with environmental groups, and unilaterally supporting strategic closures to protect spawning grounds.

“We understand that the fleet needs consolidation and the government doesn’t have money for more subsidies,” said Mike Park, the association’s director, in regard to ITQs, adding that they were very poorly designed when introduced to Scotland in 1998. “But we also have to guard against corporate buyouts.”

Will Europe’s fisheries reform efforts end up being a success story? Only time will tell, and the reforms may well get watered down between now and 2013. But even fisheries management doesn’t come across as exciting, it’s one of the more important environmental stories worldwide.

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James Fahn is the executive director of Internews's Earth Journalism Network and the author of A Land on Fire. Tags: , ,