Fish are not photogenic; they will never be made into cuddly toys; they don’t try to be our friends like dolphins do. In a line-up, most normal people would not be able to pick out a cod from a haddock from a pollack. Without a coating of batter or breadcrumbs and a helpful supermarket label they all look the same, don’t they?
It would be simplistic to suggest that this is why our fisheries are in such a state, but if you can’t empathise with something, how can you champion it? Word of any sort of animal experimentation or the farming of little minks causes an uproar. As for fish stocks being decimated? Hmm. It’s a while since I saw any placards rallying against that; not even animal rights sympathisers can be bothered with poor old Mr Guppy.
Perhaps – just perhaps – if we could identify more with fish, we’d all have taken a lot more interest in the ridiculous common fisheries policy (CFP) and asked why it has been allowed to continue for so long. Instead, we have let it come to this: unless the European commission implements a total ban on fisheries catching cod in the eastern Channel, Skagerrak, North sea, Irish sea and west of Scotland we will wipe this species out.
The CFP was created 20 years ago to look after the common interests of its 15 member states; basically it meant a free-for-all. You fish my water, I can fish yours. Splendid. But it ignored the most basic human logic: sharing is fine until someone gets greedy. It’s all to do with pride in your own plot; if you have a vegetable patch, it’s in your interest to look after it, but if you have access to a communal kitchen garden, and one person starts digging up more potatoes than you do, it’s pretty hard to stand by and not start plundering yourself. This has been the complaint of UK fishermen for years. “What is the point,” one asked me once, “of sticking to our Tacs [total allowable catch] if they don’t?” (The “they” invariably refers to the Spanish and Italians, and sometimes the French.) Not all British fisherman are innocent of course, just as not all the Spanish or Italians are bad.
If fish facts were just a little more interesting – if only Disney had got hold of the cod – perhaps we’d also wonder why EU members spend a billion pounds a year on the CFP. And why half of that goes to Spain to spend on huge trawlers that trap fish indiscriminately, many to be chucked back overboard, unwanted but dead. Responsible fishermen are the best guardians of fish. But you have to be a fisherman to know that. The day I caught my first fish I stopped seeing them as swimmy things, and started appreciating them as individual creatures with life cycles worth respecting.
Once upon a time fishing was an occupation, not an industry. It still is in a few precious places; there are little local boats that go out from places as diverse as Hastings and Amalfi, but these artisan fishermen have one thing in common: they understand fish. They can do maths and they know that fishing with no thought to tomorrow equals more than just unemployment. They change their catch according to the season; they work with the sea, never against it. At the other end of the scale you have huge trawlers which are like battery farms. A total ban will discriminate against the very person that can save the cod: the dying breed of the proper fisherman. If you had faced hardship over the past 10 years, would this latest news make you want to carry on or opt out? The huge fishing vessel captain can afford to break the ban – and he will. It wasn’t through law abiding, remember, that the cod got his death sentence.
Consumers also need to re-build their own relationship with fish in order to understand fish just a little better. It’s not a cheap food source in any sense of the word, nor is it infinite. Fish need to spawn, which means that they need not to be fished during certain months, which, in turn, means they need to disappear from our supermarkets at certain times of the year. Supermarkets – where most of us buy our fish – have to play their part too. They should label fish that come from a sustainable and responsible source. But they won’t do this because it will show up just how much fish they sell that is neither of these. How many of us know, for example, that cod caught in north-eastern Atlantic waters is in fact Icelandic cod (which is still sustainable because Iceland has no truck with the CFP)? We tend to confuse it with Atlantic cod from the North sea – which is what the hoo-ha is all about.
A total ban will just bring about an even more out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude in the consumer, which is precisely the opposite of what we want. Neither will a ban address the problem of over-fishing of other already vulnerable species that will invariably be used to fill the hole that North sea cod will leave (although most of our cod doesn’t come from there, 20% of it still does). It won’t stop everyone pilfering our waters; the only way to do that would be to pull out of the CFP altogether and get our own waters back.
It’s simplistic, certainly, and it will never happen because politicians never understand the beauty of the obvious. If you believe in reincarnation, meanwhile, just pray you come back as something with fur and eyelashes, rather than scales and fins. You’ll stand so much more of a chance.
First published in The Guardian.