Fishy

I just read that the EU is sending another EUR 5 million to Mauritania and several other countries in West Africa, to help against starvation. There is an ongoing shortage of food in the area, which is why the EU has already spent EUR 25 million on aid there.

However, the government of Mauritaina, as you may remember, recently sold its fishing rights in its waters – to the EU.

That means that the EU is first sending fishing boats – from the Baltic, of all places – to trawl up all the Mauritanian fish, and then sends financial aid to the same area because the Mauritanians – surprise, surprise – have nothing to eat.

Am I the only one seeing somethng fishy with this picture?

Flying Fish

Among the many things I find difficult to comprehend is the fact that Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian fishers fish off the coast of Mauritania.

It’s true. Fishermen (and, presumably, -women) sail their boats from their homes on the Baltic coast, through Öresund and Cattegat between Denmark and Sweden, through the English channel, down all the way along the west coast of Europe, past Gibraltar and all that, past the Canary Islands, before tossing their trawls and nets and whatnot into the waters west of Africa, where the Sahara falls into the Atlantic ocean.

I was too stunned to learn about this to remember to ask what happens to the fish, but I do hope they have the common sense to land it somewhere close by and not sail all the way back with it again. How it gets to the frozen fish factories where it is packaged for sale is another question I have no answer for, but I do hope that it is’t among the fish that is flown from Europe to be gutted in Singapore and then all the way back again in fillet form.

The reason for all this is simple. The EU has methodically depleted fish stocks in its own waters, and now, it is buying fish quotas from poor countries in the third world. Mauritania, being one of the poorest with a GDP per capita about one twelfth of that of, say, the UK, and some 40 per cent of its people living bneath the poverty line, is one of them.

Of course, this causes the same problems as in European waters, as fishing boats from a dozen EU nations descend on Mauritanian seas with the same methods they have already used to vacuum-clean their own sea floors. Fish stocks in Mauritanian waters are already threatened by foreign fishers, and national dishes of fish and rice are becoming a luxury.

For this modern-day colonialism, the EU pays Mauritania EUR 86m. A lot of money as it may seem, it is a sum of the kind that an entity like the EU blows out of its nose before breakfast. Pocket money, by another word.

But I suppose the Mauritanians can always buy frozen fish imported from multinational food companies in the EU with it. Orginally from out of their own waters, perhaps: now there’s a new definition of the concept of recycling.

Pole Postion

“Who’s representing Poland?” is the standing question here at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries council in Luxembourg. The fact of the matter is that nobody knows.

Poland had a general election on Sunday, and the ruling party’s majority was wiped out by a landslide victory for the opposition. Of course, there is no new government in place yet – it seems as if there will be coalition negotiations – but on Tuesday, Poland is supposed to take part in discussions over fishery quotas.

The problem, as I have already written in this blog, is that Poland is already allowing itself a virtually unlimited quota, as the previous government refused to stop pirate fisheries, and Poland is supposed to be a key player at this meeting. But it also seems that Poland will have a new and more EU-friendly government, and the talk here is that the other member states wouldn’t want to come down too hard on such a government for fear of alienating them.

Meanwhile, a delegate confided that the black-market fisheries is probably a far bigger threat to e.g. cod stocks than the regular fish quotas, overly generous as they may seem.  So something has to be done – but who is going to do it?

On a more positive note, delegates have had troubles hiding their joy at the change of government in Poland. “Yess!” is a word that probably describes the sentiment among many in an accurate way.

Playing With The Travelling Band

The travelling band commonly known as the European Union this month has its minsterial meetings in Luxembourg again (yes, indeed at the ghastly Luxembunker pictured to the right), and I will be playing along Monday and Tuesday as a reporter at the Agriculture and Fisheries council. (I wish I were playing with a real travelling band instead, especially when reading about old friends doing exactly that, but that’s another story.)

On Tuesday, the ministers are supposed to discuss fisheries, a common source of discontent not only because the ministers consistently fail to agree on quotas small enough to actually give fish stocks a chance to survive, but also because there has been widespread pirate fishing that compound the problem.

Notably from Poland, where the government has openly said that it does not intend to do one whit about it, because it believes that the fears for fish stocks are exagerrated. In short, they are allowing themselves an unlimited quota on the expense on every other nation around the Baltic. Marine harvest state terrorism is a concept that one is tempted to use.

However, don’t expect the Polish delegation to receive more than a symbolic thrashing about it, because Poland held general elections on Sunday and it seems that there is a huge possibility that there will be a change of guard there. And then, the process has to start all over again, with a new government which can always claim that it shouldn’t have to live up to the previous one’s agreements.

In the meantime, the EU is rattling its sabres (all two and a half of them), insisting that it will take deterrent measures against fishermen who can’t keep their tackle under control. Draconian measures are being considered, including a black list – a piece of paper listing of offending vessels – and a ban on selling catches that have bene landed outside the quota.

I bet the Pirates of the Baltic are quaking with fear.

Ulysses The Deskjockey

Perhaps it’s just as good that a couch potato like me, whose main movements at work are across wall-to-wall carpets within the EU’s comfortably padded cells for press centres, gets his shoes dirty with some foray into the real world every now and then.

As I said, the trains were on strike and I had told Belgian TV that I’d go home. However, I then decided to make an attempt to get to Luxemburg after all.

By one of these neat little coincidences in life that you might thank God for, I had bumped into my friend Philip at the strike-ridden Gare du Midi station. He had been given a plane ticket so he could go see his girlfriend in California, but couldn’t get to the airport. I had told him to try to get to the North station instead, where it might be easier to get an airport train or bus.

So, having weighed my options, I decided to try that myself; maybe I could get somewhere from there instead.

Arriving at Gare du Nord, I was met with the same sight as at Gare du Midi: one single information booth, a mile-long queue of stranded travellers, and signs saying sorry, no international trains because of the strike. (There were a number of domestic trains there, though, so I do hope Philip made it to his flight. “Fly away, Phil… be free”, if you’ve seen “Cars”.)

Anyway. I had talked with my colleague Patrik about perhaps riding with him, but eventually decided not to because he was planning to stay overnight in Luxemburg and I wasn’t. But now, I had, ehrm, thoroughly changed my mind. I called  him on my cell phone.

“I was waiting for you to call”, were the first words I heard.

I was more than welcome to hitch a ride. If I could just make it to their office.

It only so happened that the easiest way to get there turned out to be on a brand new tram line, making its first trips today – I must have been on the third or fourth departure of Line 25 ever. It was so new that it didn’t even seem to have learned to find its way, or so it seemed, as we were soon stuck in the perpetual vehicle gridlock that is known as Brussels traffic. Good thing that I had, for once, started early.

Arriving at the stop as instructed, I started my search for the offices of the Swedish Television. I thought I had a clue. I didn’t.

Patrik called, telling me not to hurry because he was late, too, as his bus had got stuck in the traffic. Surprise, surprise (Not).

I got some directions. Now, you must understand that the address spelled out to me was in French, and that I nearly failed French in high school. And it was spoken into one mobile phone and received by me on another mobile phone. To the backdrop of the morning traffic.

Another explanation for what was about to happen is that I am officially completely liberated from any sense of direction whatsoever.

So, having checked the two-by-four-metre billboard map in front of me, I set off. House number 95. Hm, the numbers start at 12 or something. OK, I’ll walk. And walk. And walk. Scorching sun. Sweaty shirt. Shoe size steadily increasing.

Some 10-20 minutes later – at last, number 95. Wait a minute. No sign of Swedish Television here.

I’m not calling again. After all, I’m a man, and there’s this thing about asking for directions. Wait, I have an idea. I’ll call directory inquiries and ask. Oh no, I’ve used up the phone card, another little walk to the cash dispenser.

Since Belgium is divided sideways, longways, thisways, thatways and some ways you wouldn’t imagine, there are three different numbers to call for directory inquiries, depending on whether you speak French, Flemish, or English. I called the one number I could think of, and a voice answered in German.

I hadn’t finished asking when the voice interrupted me. “No no, you must dial 1405 for inquiries in English”, she said. In perfect English.

I dialled 1405, but an automatic voice in my phone told me “You are not allowed to dial this number”. I’m not joking. I tried it twice.

OK, maybe it was that other street I should have walked. Another little promenade in the heat and sun, arriving almost full circle back to where I begun. At 95, there was still no sight of any TV newsroom, only the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea. I pondered for a moment whether I should ring the bell and ask for political asylum. Luckily, Patrik called again before I fell for the temptation.

“Where are you?”

I tried to explain to him that I had been at the advised address, but that there was no sight of his company. Oh yes, they were supposed to be there alright. Oh no, I have been right outside and gone somewhere else! OK, I’ll start all over again.

Just check the billboard map once again.

Oh no.

I had turned my perception of the whole thing upside down. I had walked in exactly the opposite direction.

The TV office was at number 95, alright, with at least two or three coloured signs brightly announcing its presence there. I thus understood that Patrik must have thought that I had completely gone either insane or blind, when I’d made some unwisecrack on the phone about “microscopic letters”.

We did eventually get to Luxemburg. I’m not sure how, because I fell asleep in the car.

Fast-forward to the same day’s evening. There was supposed to be a decision by the EU ministers on how to save the world’s eels, and we journalists waited, and waited, and waited. I called home. My wife was alone with two tired kids. The train strike was over, but when I checked the timetable, I realised I needed to get on the 20:24 train or get stuck in Arlon until early next day. I told her. She was not happy. To say the least.

Finally, two disillusioned Germans materialised to inform us that there wouldn’t be a decision after all. Case closed. Finito. Too bad.

That was about 19:55.

Right! Grab a bus and scoot down the hill from the European quarters to Luxemburg’s train station, conveniently located at the exact opposite side of town. Oh wait a minute, for some reason you have to actually check out of the conference centre where the meeting was held. And of course, it was all taken care of by a new apprentice, who had his supervisor talking him through the whole thing, step by step.

Come ON, before one of us dies.

Dash out to the bus stop. Next bus is 20:05. No, don’t start walking, Jonathan, you don’t know where to go. The bus should arrive at the station… well, some time around a minute after the train was to leave.

The bus was late.

Easy now. At least it’s a nice sightseeing.

SMS on the cell phone, about two minutes before arrival. “Negotiations about the eels have started”. Wait! Didn’t they just say that it had all broken down? Do I have to take the next bus back again?

By then, I decided I had had enough of eels for a decade or twenty-two. Two nanoseconds before arrival, I managed to send a message asking what was going on. The bus arrived at the station at 20:24. I scampered across the street to the serenade of angry car horns. I zoomed through the station. Yess! The train is late! Wait! There’s another one too! I made it!

I must have looked like a convict on the run from an asylum, as I – sweaty, adrenaline spurting out of my ears, hair in all directions, panting – roared to the conductor “C’est pour Bruxelles??”, pointing at the train bearing big large signs saying “Bruxelles-Midi” all over.

“Normalement, oui”, he responded, sanguinely.

Another SMS: Sorry, you’re right, the eel thing had collapsed.

The train arrived in Brussels some time before midnight. I pondered on how on Earth to get from central Brussels to my home here in the village outside town, now that the last bus had gone, and eventually decided to take a chance there’d be a metro taking me to the station from which it’s only a 45 minute walk to my home.

It did take 45 minutes alright, during which I wrote this whole story in my head. I arrived home an hour into the 17th of April, my 38th birthday.

Happy birthday to me.

I will never eat an eel in my life.

Idiot!

As in “I am an”.

I almost published a story this morning, where I claimed that eel is on the verge of becoming extent because of over-fishing of the larvae. Which is true, and which will be the theme of the EU Agriculture Minister’s meeting in Luxemburg on Monday, which I plan to cover.

However, in my zeal to explain the eel, I managed to write something about the larvae being unable to swim to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce.

It was only this morning that it ocurred to me that eel larvae do not reproduce; they do need to grow up a bit first.

My only defence is that one might easily get confused by the way one’s own offspring behaves…

Fish’N’Ships

“What’s that on that picture, Great-Grandpa?”atlantic_cod.jpg

“Ah, that’s fish, a kind of animals without arms or legs that used to swim around in the oceans when I was young, children. We used to eat them.”

“Like jellyfish?”

“Eh… not quite.”

“Tofu?”

This is the kind of conversation I do not wish to have with my great-grandchildren. Neither do the European Commissioners, who in about an hour from when this was written (on my laptop travelling on the Brussels Metro by the way) will present their latest attempt to save the world’s free-living fish.

They have tried over and over again to persuade fishermen in the Union what the former Commissioner Franz Fischler used to say: In order for there to be fisheries, there must be fish. But for some unimaginable reason, fishermen and –women have been completely incapable to comprehend this simple equation.

Time and time again, the increasingly frustrated European Commission has tried to slash the amount of fish that can be dragged out of the waters, and every time, protests have made the politicians in the Council to coward away. And then the EU gets the blame for not acting enough.

Protests about what? “Ooooohh, we’ll have to scrap our boats, oooooohhh, our livelihood is threatened, oooooohhhh, our heritage is in jeopardy, oooooohhhhh, our picturesque fishing villages will die”, moan the fishers.

Of course all this will happen – if they don’t cut back their fishing quotas. Which they utterly refuse to accept, because all that is in the long term. Instead, they push the ministers they have elected to take stupid decisions that will satisfy them in the short term.

Basically as clever as trying to get warm on a cold day by peeing in your pants.

As if that were not enough, the amount of fish that can legally be caught – which, remember, is already way too much to ensure that stocks will recover – is only one competitor for the quickly depleting stocks. Another is huge illegal catches. And yet another is human stupidity.

It turns out that much fish is being thrown back into the sea – dead, that is – because fishers’ quotas have already been filled. Or if they’re simply of a kind that the vessel that catches them does not have a quota for. Now, these quotas were put there in the first place to stop too many fish from being killed, but when fishers have filled their quotas, they thus tackle (sic!) the problem by killing even more fish.

Cod, one of the most endangered species, has already become extremely rare, and I for one have only seen it at one restaurant recently. At our local supermarkets, it’s gone. Period. Worse still, fishes used to replace cod – like pollock and hoki – are also becoming equally rare.

Environment groups warn that there is a very real risk that our great-grandchildren will only know of jellyfish in the seas and tofu on their plates. Whether or not the European Commission can come up with something that can change this very alarming trend is something you will read about in Foodwire.