Fishing traditions disappear under EU quotas

Latvia celebrated its traditional Fishermen’s Day along coastline towns and cities this weekend with plenty of fanfare, free concerts and open-air fairs. But for the fishermen being honored there’s a bittersweet tinge to the event this year. Latvia’s coastal fishing fleet is prevented from developing because of EU quotas meant to save the polluted and over-exploited Baltic Sea’s decimated fish populations.

Most of the few remaining coastal fishermen of the small towns dotting the shores of the Gulf of Riga say they aren’t so pleased to mark the occasion in their honor this year. Their way of life is going extinct.

“Things are slowly grinding to a halt. We can’t register new boats. The old ones fall apart, the older fishermen pass away and the sector just dies out as such,” says coastal fisherman Oskars Celkarts of Berzciems village.

His neighbor Vaira Varpina thinks “there’s something wrong with Latvia’s fishing policies.”

She described many local families’ frustrations. “Say our grandpa still goes out to sea to fish, his son rents a boat from him. But if another grandson or two wants to follow in their footsteps, from what I gather, there’s no chance at all,” she said.

Celkarts confirms this, as he still goes out in his grandfather’s boat and isn’t allowed a new one. “Europe’s got these laws, no signing up of new boats. Enough’s enough,” he said.

Salacgriva fisherman Rolands Kirsis also still goes out in his grandfather’s boat. “Now there’s only three companies, with five boats all the way between Kuivizi and Saulkrasti. There used to be three per village. It’s all slowly disappearing. If it goes on like this, we’ll stop fishing altogether. There’s still plenty of demand, and thanks to the scrapping of vessels, there are many more fish. What we get out of the coastal zones is maybe one percent of what a larger ship could haul in the entire Gulf,” he says.

As Latvian regional television company Kurzemes TV reported Saturday from both the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic port of Ventspils, shore communities are seeing micro-, small-, and medium-sized fishing vessels in the hundreds being scrapped in compliance with EU rules barring member-states from developing their fishing fleets.  The measures are in place to prevent the type of overfishing that “emptied the sea of fish, basically,” as Foundation for Environmental Education-Latvia (FEE) spokesman Janis Ulme told LSM today.

To balance the capacity of Latvia’s fleet with the need to allow for restocking of several threatened fish species, the European Fisheries Fund (EFF) is co-paying for the scrapping of existing vessels.

Former offshore fleet captain Guntis Tirmanis told Kurzeme TV that “in Soviet times they just made barbarically huge hauls when there were no rules to follow”.

But Ulme adds that the USSR alone could not have accounted for the devastatingly large catches made during a 30-year period beginning around the 1970s.

“All eleven Baltic Sea nations are responsible for the exceedingly large fish hauls of those times,” the FEE-Latvia activist pointed out. “Fishing is not the only sector that will be struck by this catastrophe, it’s just the first. It’s something we have to accept and deal with now,” he went on to say.

“Regarding the quotas, it’s truly a shame that these small-scale fishermen who have been in the trade for generations can’t register new boats, ply the craft of their ancestors, and have to limit their time at sea, especially considering their catches are completely negligible and they certainly had nothing to do with the overfishing problem. But the situation shows that in those thirty years up to the new century the Baltic Sea fish stocks have been exhausted, they’re dry,” he concluded.

Kolka fisherman Oskars Sprogis is an optimist, having just registered himself as a coastal fishing enterprise.  “Maybe we should all just pack up and leave? What’s the point, then? If you want to stay here, you have to do something!” he argued.

According to a July 11 release by the Fisheries Secretariat of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the EU depends on outside water sources for almost half of its fish consumption. “This means that Europeans are eating more fish than its seas produce and continue to miss on the huge economic benefits that would result from letting fish stocks grow,” cites the New Economics Foundation’s Fish Dependence Report’s 2014 update.

Thus the quotas are in place in the hopes that replenished fish stocks will have time to grow and only in the longer-term return to provide jobs and food for EU citizens from sustainable national fishing industries.

“EU member states need to look beyond the short-term costs of fish stock restoration and turn the potential long-term benefits that healthy marine resources can provide into a reality,” the release says in closing.

As for Latvia’s entire fisheries sector, FAO data up to 2005 show it making up just 1.15% of Latvia’s total 4.5% of GDP agricultural output, with $134m USD total output of fish production in 2003. The industry employed about 14000 people ten years ago, about 1.2% of the economically active population. The relative importance of the fisheries in the national GDP had once stood higher at 3.4% in 1996.

One of the species restocking efforts of the EU's Regional Development Fund's AQUAFINA project is a four-year larvae reintroduction program run by the public Food Safety, Animal Health and Environment Institute BIOR called the Return of a Million Trout. The effort targets seven Latvian river systems in the hopes that “Norwegian anglers could come to our rivers to find this majestic fish rather than our anglers having to travel to Norway to catch trout,” Environment Minister Romans Naudins' freelance aide Maris Olte told LSM on the release of part of the almost-million trout fry prepared for letting into the Ogre River on June 18.

But on the thronging cobblestone streets of Ventspils Saturday the smell of traditionally smoked fish wafted through the air amongst dozens of local fishermen’s stands. Smoked flounder, trout, and sea perch hung in mock protest against the anti-benzo(a)pyrene dispute. But the fact remains – these fish are vanishing from the Baltic Sea.

And for now the fishermen of Latvia's Baltic and Gulf coasts can only invoke the mythical beneficence of sea-god Neptune and his mermaid sidekicks, traditional mascots of the Fishermen's Day celebrations, to help them in their lonely plight.

 

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