Who is Responsible for Overfishing?

Recent reforms have placed the biological health of European fish stocks at the heart of fisheries management, but this has left many fishermen in Ireland struggling to adapt within a highly competitive global seafood market.

Research conducted into new forms of fisheries management shows how fishermen are identified as key actors for bringing about sustainable transformations in the sector.

They are increasingly taking on active roles in collecting data, implementing management plans, and carving out new commercial opportunities in the globalized, ‘sustainable’ seafood market.

But these new roles and relationships are not just the result of a new found commitment to environmental goals on the part of fishermen. Fishermen are being put under growing pressure to demonstrate their ‘environmental performance’ in order to gain access to fisheries and seafood markets. Many fishermen find it harder and harder to make a living between environmental regulations and the pressures of the global seafood market.

Assistant Professor in Geography at Trinity College Dublin, Patrick Bresnihan, conducted the research and has written about his findings in the new book: Transforming the Fisheries, Neoliberalism, Nature & the Commons.

The book was launched at a seminar on the topic held in Trinity College on Thursday April 21st.

Professor Bresnihan said: “There is now widespread agreement that fish stocks are severely depleted and fishing activity must be limited. For example, the recent reform of the European Common Fisheries Policy (2014) has re-oriented fisheries policy towards the conservation of fish stocks, and this has understandably been celebrated by environmental campaigners, NGOs and members of the wider public.”

“But the problem with this emphasis on conserving fish stocks is that it can reproduce simplistic narratives about resource depletion and environmental degradation more generally. In this understanding, overfishing is understood to be the result of self-interested fishermen exploiting limited fish stocks. This kind of explanation ignores the uneven development of industrial-scale fishing and the pressures of a globalized seafood market. It also fails to recognize that fishermen are not all the same – they interact with and use the marine environment in different ways.”

Transforming the Fisheries examines how scientific, economic, and regulatory responses to the problem of overfishing have changed over the past 20 years. The book weaves together 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork with reflections on fisheries science, economics, and history to explore the changing relationships between knowledge, nature, and capitalism in the European fisheries.

Professor Bresnihan added: “Many of the key concepts that govern contemporary environmental thinking—such as scarcity, sustainability, the commons, and enclosure—should be reconsidered in light of the collapse of global fish stocks and the different ways this problem is now being addressed.”

Media Coverage

Irish Times

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Thomas Deane, Media Relations Officer | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685