Regulations are required to save the herring on the Christmas table

Few dishes on the table for a traditional Swedish Christmas dinner are as soaked in cultural meaning as the herring, and in the southern parts of the country also the eel. At the same time, few things are as clear examples of state-supported businesses that, like the magician in Lennart Hellsing's nursery rhyme, devour themselves like the fisheries for these species, write experts Henrik Svedäng and Charles Berkow at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.

At the same time as the biodiversity conference COP15 is underway, with the goal of protecting species and habitats, Swedish politics has not succeeded in reaching agreement on protecting either the eel or the ecologically significant herring stocks along the east coast. For many people, it is incomprehensible that the fishing industry, which is insignificant for the national economy, has been given such a strong priority over other interests.

Fisheries can be seen as a classic example of market failure. It is often said that "not even the most hardened Chicago economist can deny the need for regulation". The discussion goes back at least to the 17th century when, on the one hand, the jurist Hugo Grotius claimed the freedom of the seas, not least regarding the Netherlands' fishing in the waters that the British King James I regarded as his. To the contrary was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who with experience of the English Civil War pointed to the need for a Sovereign, i.e. the state, to avoid Bellum omnium contra omnes - the war of all against all. If this Sovereign did not appear, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

Fisheries economist Gordon Scott preceded Garrett Hardin's thesis on the "tragedy of the commons" and showed that without regulation, all stocks will eventually be overexploited. A regulation that is over-optimistic or short-sighted can produce the same result. This has been proven in Swedish waters. You could even say that the fishing took place with the tacit approval of the bureaucrats, fishing industry and politicians, to the extent that they played high and took big risks. Stocks of predatory fish, and especially cod, have been declining in the Skagerrak-Kattegat and the southern Baltic Sea for a long time. In between is Öresund, where the cod stock has not yet completely collapsed, mainly due to the fact that maritime traffic in the Strait does not allow fishing vessels towing various gear. Eel abundance has been declining for a long time, which is part of a pan-European problem complex. Lately, even the base of the coastal sea, the herring, has declined to alarmingly low levels in all areas.

Gordon Scott also pointed out that fish stocks cannot be developed. This means that technological development is not necessarily good. Since the primary conflict is between fishermen – not between fishermen and managers, or between fishermen and scientists, as one might sometimes get the impression – technological progress leads to increased competition between fishermen, but not to catches beyond what the ecosystem is able to produce. Fishing is simply hunting on nature’s conditions, not industry or agriculture.

Fisheries are managed for this very reason; the consequences of the constantly ongoing technological development cannot be handled by the actors themselves. Administration then comes under the domain of politics. Management has sometimes been successful. The most important fish stock in Europe, the Norwegian spring spawning herring, crashed at the end of the 1960s. The fishery was simply closed down for over twenty years, and the stock has recovered fairly well. The North Sea herring was depleted during the 1970s and fishing was closed between 1978 and 1983. The consequences were felt, not least on the Swedish west coast, but the stock recovered completely.

One would think that since then we have become wiser or more resource-conscious – that it would no longer take the complete collapse of fish stocks for the Sovereign (politicians) to react – but that does not seem to be the case. We still live with the 17th century mercantilist view of fishing, where governments care about their own nation's success in EU negotiations on fishing quotas without taking into account the overarching goals of common productive stocks. The bickering over the herring stocks in the Baltic Sea shows that prudence has not increased as fishing's contribution to the economy declines. The economic consequences for society lie most immediately in lost ecosystem services such as food security and ecosystem regulation mechanisms such as carbon sinks.

Since the real economic importance of fish lies in being inhabitants of the sea and providing, for example, dishes for the Christmas table, rather than maintaining a capital intensive fishing industry, the question should be asked of the Sovereign, what should It have done? Because instead of regulating fishing so that stocks can increase to robust levels, bloated annual quotas and subsidies to the industry have been seen as a solution to hard-working fishermen's increasing problems of making ends meet. Subsidies have been paid out in the form of tax exemptions on fuel, port facilities and direct grants. At the end of the 2000s, shares in the so-called pelagic fishery (fishing for schooling fish such as herring, sprat and mackerel) were also privatized without any requirement for compensation. The reason was said to be partly a desire for structural transformation, partly a hope that the ownership would lead to an incentive to take greater responsibility for the stocks. This in turn led to an increased capitalization of the fishing industry, where especially the larger fishing companies with a home port near Gothenburg, were able to convert their assets into new purchases of fishing quotas and investments in modern, capital-intensive fishing technology.

The introduction of individual, transferable quotas thus contributed to a concentration of the fleet into fewer but larger vessels and to greater profitability for the larger fishing companies. The inherently anarchic state of the industry was more difficult to remedy – it is still difficult to know what is happening at sea. So now we are left with a fleet consisting of very large units, ill-suited for the small enclosed Baltic Sea. The larger companies have also begun to protect themselves by purchasing rights in other parts of the North East Atlantic from, for example, Denmark. In the increasingly over-exploited Swedish coastal waters there are few signs of recovery. The lack of fish leads to fishers being locked into fishing stocks that have already been depleted, such as eel, and to loud cries for further state action, now to step in as the sea's gardener and oversee the shooting of seals and cormorants, as well as other forms of manipulation. It is becoming increasingly clear that not all fishing stories have happy endings.

Because who is the "Sovereign" today anyway? The EU's reform of fisheries policy almost 10 years ago had only temporary success and then especially in the North Sea, not in Swedish coastal waters. This limited success is likely to disappear as nations race to make up for the lost quotas resulting from Britain's exit from the Union. Attempts to achieve more long-term management through a multi-annual management plan for herring, cod and sprat in the Baltic Sea have been unsuccessful. This is partly due to general degradation of the marine environment, that has management has not taken into account because having to deal with lower ecosystem productivity is not even on the radar. By setting the total fishing quotas at a level that is at the upper range, or even exceeds, the levels estimated to be sustainable, based on the highly uncertain estimates of the size of the stocks, the fisheries ministers have time and again tried to conjure like Hellsing’s nursery rhyme magician, so that eight becomes nineteen and nineteen becomes two. But nature cannot be conned, at least not time and time again. Politicians' concerns about the short-term interests of fishing have thus depleted both the sea and the fishermen's long-term profitability.

In the long run, politics cannot avoid shouldering the responsibility for our common environment and jointly owned fish resources. Leviathan, the biblical sea monster that Thomas Hobbes took as an illustration of the need for a common state, represents our inability to retain the fruits of our ingenuity within nature’s boundaries. If a hundred years ago it was said that "Crayfish require these drinks", today we can say "Herring require these regulations".

Henrik Svedäng, associate professor in marine ecology, researcher at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre and scientific coordinator at the Swedish Institute for Marine Environment
Charles Berkow, policy analyst, Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre

This text was first published in Swedish in Dagens Industri