Sobrepesca: Spain's annual fish supply already gone

The Spanish love their seafood. A cliché backed up by statistics. With 42kg of fish per capita, Spain consumes double the EU average. Only Portugal and Lithuania consume more - 56 kg and 43 kg respectively.

But a worrying trend has been confirmed recently with the announcement of a report by the UK-based economical and environmental thinktank New Economics Foundation, who have been monitoring trends in the fisheries industry.

The reports states that midway through May, Spain has already eaten its own yearly quota of pescado. The national supply officially ran out on May 10, lasting just one day more than it did last year. Since 1990 the date has generally been coming earlier and earlier every year, as the fishing industry struggles to cope with demand, fishing in ever-more depleted areas.

The NEF has been analyzing European fishing data and the extent of each country's pescadependencia for the last seven years. it found that by comparison, countries such as Eire or the UK which consume relatively little (Really? Yes, really...), are almost entirely self-sufficient. Meanwhile, land-locked nations such as Czech Republic and Austria have generally used up their own supplies by the end of January.

According to the NEF, the Spanish national quota should have lasted for at least another month. The principal cause of this disquieting trend in Spanish waters is sobrepesca - overfishing - which has depleted the traditional fishing grounds. In the North Atlantic fishing zones in particular, Spain is reported to be one of the main offenders - with the annual catch exceeding the recommended amount by 40,416 tonnes - 24%. 'As the productivity of caladeros (fishing gounds) has reduced,' NEF investigator Aniol Esteban explains, 'European fleets have begun to look in waters deeper and further away, while imports from other countries have steadily increased.'

So what does this mean for Spain? No more bacalao or mejillones on the table for the rest of the year? Of course not. It just means we'll be relying on imported fish to get us through. According to Esteban roughly three in every five units of fish we eat are caught in foreign waters.

Of course, overfishing is not just a Spanish problem. It's one that concerns the whole EU. There are over 150 million people living on the Mediterranean shore, reliant on produce from the sea. Of 900 fish species, 100 of those are commercially exploited. According to the WWF, 96% of the Mediterranean caladeros trawled by EU fleets suffer from overfishing:

'Around 1.5 million tonnes of fish are caught in the Mediterranean each year. Destructive and often illegal fishing methods, including bottom trawlers, dynamite, long lines, and drift nets have depleted fish stocks and are responsible for the accidental deaths and for incidental catches of flagship species such as cetaceans and marine turtles.'

'15 years ago things were even worse,' adds NEF's Esteban. 'Overfishing in Europe stood at 30% and went down to 7% by last year. But this year it's up to 13% again.'

Still, it seems governments are taking heed of scientist's warning reports, resulting in some Atlantic fishing grounds showing a slight improvement in numbers. This was helped by the new Common Fisheries Policy, which was established in 2014, and aims to put in place catch limits on certain species by 2020. The NEF suggests that if these guidelines were truly respected, Europe's overall haul could improve by an increased 2 million tonnes, resulting in an economic boost of 1600 million Euros and 20,000 new jobs, or as Esteban puts it, 'more fish, more jobs, more benefits and better salaries.'

But, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a staggering 90% of marine fishes in the Mediterranean remain at risk of exctinction, including sharks (in particular, the blue shark - Spain is one of the chief exporters in the fin trade), rays, monk seals, a whole host of cetaceans (wales, dolphins, porpoises) and even in the long run, one of Spain's favourite tabletime treats, the merluza (hake).

The IUCN and other conservation organisations place the blame squarely on overfishing practices, over other factors such as pollution and coastal development.

Despite improvements in practices, it seems there's still a way to go before we restore the balance in our seas. And in the meantime, in Spain, we're taking more than our share.

For those interested in the relationship between economics and environment, it's worth taking a look at the NEF's website, Their motto is 'economics as if people and the planet mattered.'

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