Copyright © 2001
The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com
Spanish Town's Livelihood Dies |
|Otto Pohl International
Herald Tribune |
Tuesday, June 12, 2001
BARBATE, Spain Vincente Virue wanted to be a
fisherman so badly that he used his older brother's ID to start
working on a ship when he was 12, two years younger than the legal
"I was always drawn to the ocean," he said,
describing the opportunities and lively activity in this southern
Spanish fishing port. "I especially looked forward to the Sardine
Fest every July, where we ate the best grilled summer sardines and
everyone danced flamenco on the beach."
Those are little more
than memories now. With no fish left to catch, the port of Barbate
is filled with tarp-wrapped boats and rusting anchors. The Sardine
Fest still takes place, but it is not the same - the sardines are
Mr. Virue, now 56, has not had any real work in 18
months and does not expect any soon. "There is no future for us in
the water anymore," he said.
All across Western Europe the
fishing industry is facing the same threats that have brought
Barbate to a standstill. Overfishing has caused fish populations -
and catches - to plummet.
The UN Food and Agriculture
Organization estimates that 70 percent of all fish stocks globally
are either overfished or in danger of it. In northern European
waters, previously abundant hake and cod came so close to commercial
extinction last December that an emergency ban on fishing was
imposed by the European Union.
In March, the EU agency
responsible for shaping European fishing policy, the Directorate
General for Fisheries, issued a report on the state of the industry
that was intended to spark debate about the first full-scale reform
of fishing policy in 20 years.
The report is blunt. "If it is
to survive" the report warns, "the Community fisheries sector will
have to be significantly smaller than it is today." Just reducing
the domestic fleets might not be enough. More countries are in a
hurry to build up their fishing fleets to make money while they
For Barbate, the final blow came when Morocco
chose not to renew an agreement that had allowed Spanish and EU
ships to fish in Moroccan waters. Overnight, a total of 4,000
Spanish fishermen in a string of towns along the southern Spanish
coast - including most of Barbate's 1,200 fishermen - were out of
The death of the fishing industry in Barbate, a town of
22,000 people, did not happen overnight. It expired over four
decades, squeezed by diminishing fish stocks and by reduced access
to Moroccan waters. During that time virtually nothing was done to
diversify the local economy. When the Moroccans refused to renew the
last agreement, which went into effect in 1995 and expired at the
end of 1999, people in Barbate had little else to do but cast blame
and collect unemployment.
Even then, many refused to believe
that the times really had changed. Ship owners even invested their
unemployment support payments into building new ships so they would
be ready when another accord was signed. It never was.
kind of inertia has been seen across the European Union. "The
decision makers have taken a head-in-the-sand approach," said Scott
Burns, the Director of the World Wildlife Fund's Endangered Seas
Campaign. "The EU has had a policy blind to biological realities
that they simply have not had the political will to
Some of that political will might be found this
year as the fisheries policy comes under scrutiny. The EU report has
clearly laid out the problems facing Europe. The EU fisheries policy
"has not delivered sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources,"
the report states. "If current trends continue, many stocks will
Both the report and industry analysts agree that
the fundamental problem facing the industry is fleet overcapacity.
With an estimated 40 percent more fishing capacity than the oceans
can sustain, tremendous pressure has been exerted on the fish
The result has been, according to Mr. Burns, "a
systematic depletion of the more valuable species that causes a
continual hunt for new species to exploit," leading to what is
called serial overfishing.
Critics contend that the EU has
simply been postponing downsizing its fleet by moving the excess
boats to third country fishing grounds. Now that the Moroccan
agreement, the biggest fishing agreement the EU had signed, is dead,
that safety valve has become a lot less effective.
tradition of subsidizing the fishing industry has also led to
continued expansion and modernization of the fleet.
the estimated E1.1 billion ($935 million) of annual EU fish
subsidies is intended to encourage decommissioning or scrapping of
vessels, but most of the money helps artificially maintain a large
fleet through price supports, loan guarantees or explicit payment
for fleet modernization.
Further exacerbating the problem are
advances in technology, which allow boats to go further, faster and
find fish with greater accuracy. Sonar and radar technology, much of
it first developed for military uses, maps the ocean floor and finds
the fish. Then the latest generations of nets make quick work of
enormous schools of fish. The report assigns much of the blame to
politicians for not heeding the commission's previous
recommendations. "The current situation of resource depletion
results, to a good extent, from setting annual catch limits in
excess of those proposed by the commission on the basis of
scientific advice," the report says.
The limited fleet
reductions negotiated in the past, according to the report, were
made irrelevant by fresh subsidies for fleet expansion and
Industry critics say they are frustrated by
the fact that the authorities are ignoring a clear course of action
that is in everyone's long-term interests. With a fleet in balance
with what the oceans can sustain, fishermen could catch more fish
with less effort. That would leave a healthy ecosystem, as well as a
greater return for investors. "The problem," Mr. Burns said, "is
that until there are clear rules that everyone believes everyone
else is going to follow, it is in everyone's short-term interest to
grab as much as possible."
The result of that can be seen in
the silent port of Barbate, where on a recent afternoon the only
boat at work was a coast guard vessel looking for illegal Moroccan
immigrants from Africa.
"Maybe it's a good thing that the
economy of Barbate has hit bottom," said Vincent Virue. "Now
everyone will stop focusing on the sea, and start looking at
developing the coast."
Another unemployed fisherman, Pepe
Rivera, agreed. Describing all of the opportunities that lay ahead
if Barbate were to take advantage of its sunny climate and wide
beaches to attract tourist investment, he concluded: "It's actually
too bad that the agreement was renewed in 1995. It allowed everyone
to put everything off. If it hadn't been signed, this place could be
doing great now."
Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune