Isabella Lövin: Consensus rule undermines fishery policy and effective global governance

Isabella Lövin: Consensus rule undermines fishery policy and effective global governance

Brian Coughlan, 6. October 2013

Isabella Lövin

Isabella Lövin

Isabella Lövin has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009, representing the Swedish Green Party. She is the team leader on the fisheries committee for the Greens in the parliament and she also serves as a member of the development committee.

Mrs Lövin is a journalist and author, most notably of the award-winning book Silent Seas which exposes the shortcomings of the European Common Fisheries Policy. She is one of the co-hosts of the upcoming international meeting on a UN Parliamentary Assembly which will take place in the European Parliament in October 2013. 


Audio transcript of the interview

Thanks for taking the time to join me, much appreciated. I guess the logical place to bait my hook - if you'll forgive a terrible pun/metaphor - is your relentless focus on fisheries policy. You've devoted your entire political work at the European Parliament and beyond to the fight against over fishing. Why is this issue of greatest importance and could you also tell us a bit about the state of global fish stocks?

Isabella Lövin on a UN Parliamentary Assembly

Isabella Lövin on a UN Parliamentary Assembly

Well, it so happens that I was elected on this issue. I was campaigning in Sweden only on the issue of ending overfishing and what happened was that I discovered, through research when I was doing my book, writing my book "Silent Seas", the outrageous way that our common resource, the fish, has been managed the last decades since the 1950s, basically. This has been very, very obvious in Swedish waters but I also discovered that this was true for European waters and even the world's waters. Why is it important, why it was so important that I'm still only debating fisheries after, well, ten years?

There are, I think, two issues. One is about food security, and this is really something that is enormously serious, that we are depleting a food resource that is basically renewable forever. We have an increasing population on this planet and what we've done during the last century is to deplete all the big fish, the predatory fish, by between 70 and 90 per cent. So we actually took away this fantastic resource from the world's oceans and it's unsure whether or not we're going to be able to let them grow back - I'm working on that - that is one issue. The second one has more to do with ecosystems and biodiversity. If you look at the planet, if you look at the globe, its 72 per cent blue, it's mostly oceans and this planet is heavily dependent on the well-being of  the ecosystems in those oceans. To produce oxygen, to absorb CO2, all the biochemical things. What we've done by removing up to 90% of predatory fish from the world's oceans is that we actually change the marine ecosystems in a very dramatic way in a very brief time in the history of this planet. This is really worrying because it's decreasing the planet's resilience towards climate change, and all the other, let's say stressors, enormous stresses that we're putting on the oceans: such as the invasion of alien species, because we're moving water around in ships all over the world; we also have  acidification of the world's oceans; we have plastic litter everywhere. I could go one forever...

It's an interesting analogy, to see the seas as a kind of immune system. We're doing some kind of radical genetic manipulation of our global immune system.

I would rather call it an amputation, is not so sophisticated, we've really massacred the world's fish stocks and we have to look this in the eye. 

In your book Silent Seas you refer to this amputation as a tragedy of the commons. What does that concept mean, the tragedy of the commons?

Well, basically it's if you have a common resource that is free for all, it's possible that everyone is fair and you just share this resource and no one is overgrazing or overfishing as the case may be. But what happens is that the logic is that if one fisherman starts taking more than the sea can produce, then all the other fishermen will suffer, and all the other people in the community will suffer. If there are no sanctions, if there are no regulations, there is nothing you can do, then this person goes on - or this nation, it could be nations, it could be different actors - if this goes on the logic is that someone else thinks "Well, I must also hurry to take as much as I can before everything is gone." and then the circus, the race, starts, and everyone tries to get as much as they can as soon as possible. For example, by applying small mesh sizes because others are using small mesh sizes... mean the size of the nets...

...the nets exactly... or it if you have neighboring countries that are fishing for the same fish stocks and one country is not really controlling their fishermen, then in the other country they will immediately start arguing that "We must also be able to fish in the same way as the others are otherwise they would just take the fish and we will not gain anything!" So it's really this matter of a lack of control, lack of cooperation, lack of possible sanctions. I think the world's oceans have been very sadly forgotten by managers, by decision-makers, by politicians and this race to the bottom, this tragedy of the commons, has been going on for far too long in almost all the world's seas.

If we accept that the global fish stocks and their habitat, the oceans, are a global common good, then the only working solution to manage this good will be some kind of effective global regulation. That will probably have to be supranational which frankly sometimes seems synonymous with supernatural. How far are we still away from a global supranational policy with regard to fisheries policy?

I would say quite far away. I've seen negotiations, I've seen debates in fora like the committee on fisheries of the FAO and the work is going extremely slowly. Just to give you one example: There has been a debate for over 10 years now to establish a global list of fishing vessels and still the world's nations cannot agree on such a simple thing which would be incredibly important to combat illegal fishing. Not to mention that we don't have a satisfactory - at all far, far, from it - cooperation on surveillance on international waters. Basically what we have now is some regional fisheries management organisations that take care of management of the most valuable fish stocks (like tuna and swordfish) but these organisations are based on consensus. They are also based on an exploitation logic, not a conservation logic, so it's very, very far from ideal. Essentially, everything today is permitted on international waters unless it's agreed to be forbidden or restricted. This means that you can go out and totally destroy some deep sea species that are still undiscovered; before you get all the countries to agree to manage and protect these species they could already be gone!

There are probably many more examples for the tragedy of the commons and the need for global regulation. Carbon emissions for example might be one of the most obvious ones. However, progress to date on this issue does not leave one with a sense of confidence that the United Nations or the existing framework of global governance are up to the challenge of regulating fisheries, or carbon emissions or any of these issues. In what ways could this be changed through a UN Parliamentary Assembly?

A UN Parliamentary Assembly could contribute to that through a more, let's say, a discussion and debate that comes closer to citizens in the world. Today what's going on in the FAO, in the UN or these climate meetings - it's very hard for citizens to really influence those things through elected members such as occurs in the European Parliament. By the way, I think the members of the European Parliament are an example of what a global parliament could look like.

I feel, and I think my colleagues feel very much the same, that we are much more directly connected to the citizens and also that we today - and I guess it's a very long way for a global parliamentary assembly with decision-making powers - that we actually have decision-making powers [in the EU Parliament] and that means we can take decisions through majority decisions and you don't need consensus all the time. I think when you see what's happening in the world today - if I return to the issue of fishing - if you have to have consensus all you have to have is one country that is totally irresponsible and then you can't progress on anything and protect what should be protected because it's the common heritage of mankind. It should be protected by us! It's in our trust, but it's very difficult to do that as long as you have governments that are not necessarily even representing their people - we have of course very many non-democratic countries in the world as well - I think that a move towards more direct global democracy is something that we have to see.

Could you imagine working more on the issue of a global parliament and effective structures of global governance in the future?

Absolutely, I think it's a very exciting challenge. Really, I think many people would see that as a utopia but I like those kinds of concepts so I would really think it would be very interesting to work with that. 

Well, thank you very much Isabella, much appreciated that you chatted with us.

Thank you very much for chatting with me too Brian.

Tags: Sweden