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Too few fish in the sea

Scientists and NGOs wary amid ambitious European fisheries reform.

Daniel Cressey
The European Union's fisheries policy is in dire need of an overhaul.

 Fisheries researchers across Europe should brace themselves for a busy year as a massive overhaul of the continent's fishing industry reaches a climax.

Already, concerns are emerging that draft plans from the European Commission do not go far enough or offer innovative solutions in a long-delayed push for sustainability.

The Common Fisheries Policy that regulates catches among European Union (EU) member states has long been damned by scientists as leading to the systematic overexploitation of stocks. In 2009 the policy's failings were acknowledged in a Green Paper from the commission which admitted that 88% of stocks were fished beyond their 'maximum sustainable yield' (MSY)1.

The new proposals have not yet been finalized, a spokesman for the commission's Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE) says. But drafts now in circulation, seen by Nature, show the scope of the commission's ambition — and the limitations of the new policy.

The commission aims to reform both how it sets the amount of fish that can be caught and how these quotas are allocated to fishermen.

A key change will be a move to fish at the MSY – maintaining stocks at a level that produces the maximum catch every year. Also confirmed are previous suggestions that Europe could ban the practice of 'discards', where caught fish that are not a target species are thrown back into the sea. Another, more controversial, suggestion is a move towards transferable fishing shares, which would see owners of larger vessels able to buy and sell the quotas of other players in their country. Smaller vessels are excluded.

Didier Gascuel, director of the Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Center at Agrocampus Ouest in Rennes, France, an institute of the French Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, says that the draft text is "in the right direction". "The move to MSY is a good point. To reduce discards is a good point," he says.

However, Gascuel says that there is a pressing need for "new tools" to control how fishing is undertaken. These could vary from species to species and area to area but could include a 'fishing season', where boats can only go out for part of the year, and a wider use of marine protected areas where all fishing is banned.

Rocking the boat
At present, advice on the amount of fish that should be caught by EU boats comes from scientists under the auspices of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, based in Copenhagen. They report to the European Commission, which passes its proposals to the Council of Ministers. This body of ministers from each EU member state has the final say, and routinely sets catch quotas higher than the scientific advice recommends.
"The system is widely regarded as having failed to conserve the fisheries resources of the EU," wrote two researchers in a 2005 analysis2. Another 2009 analysis of the system used to determine the 'total allowable catch' under the European systems called it "complicated, inaccurate and ineffective"3.
The fundamental complaint from scientists is that the present system has resoundingly failed to make fishing sustainable. Last year, Rainer Froese and legal expert Alexander Proelß at the University of Kiel, Germany, reported that "even if fishing were halted in 2010, 22% of the stocks are so depleted that they cannot be rebuilt by 2015"4.

That date is important as it represents the deadline by which an international agreement says stocks should hit a target to "maintain or restore populations of harvested species at levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield" (see: Europe cannot keep its promises on fish stocks).

Why MSY?
The draft proposals for reform want stocks to be exploited at MSY by 2015, and suggest that this would increase stock sizes by 70% and overall catches by 17%. Although achieving this for all European fish species is next to impossible, even pushing for it could present a problem in the transition phase. Many experts think catches will need to decrease while stocks rebuild. Convincing fishermen and politicians to catch less fish while stocks are actually increasing is a big asJohn Shepherd, a fisheries expert at the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton, UK, points out that this system will require detailed scientific knowledge of the state of all fish stocks, something that is lacking. It also requires very rigorous enforcement and inspection of fishing boats.

"What they're proposing is a very expensive system both on the science base that is required to sustain it and the enforcement activity required to police it. It's not obvious that's the best way to go," he says.

An alternative – not mentioned in the draft document – would be to control fishing effort rather than catches. This could involve limiting the number of days spent at sea, for example.

And while the draft stresses that "fisheries management must be based on sound scientific advice", Vera Coelho, assistant director of the Brussels-based Seas At Risk campaign group, part of the wider Ocean2012 group lobbying for European fisheries reform, says that the system that has ignored scientific advice so far will continue to exist, with haggling between countries in the Council of Ministers still likely to present a problem.

"Once again there is no change in that decision-making process. The Council of Ministers maintains full responsibility," she notes.

The transferable quotas aspect of the reforms has grabbed much of the attention, with some NGOs equating it with the 'privatization of the seas'.

"We are very, very wary of this provision," says Coelho. "Ownership does not necessarily equal stewardship."
A spokesman for DG MARE said that a proposal should be presented by the commission on 13 July and until then there was "not an agreed final text" that could be commented on. However, he added that the commissioner, Maria Damanaki, has previously stressed how "she wants to have reform so we would have sustainable fisheries based on scientific advice".

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