Before the 1990s, the quantity of fish allowed to be caught at sea was determined by the government with input from scientific research, says Mr van Hoof of Wageningen UR. Quotas were imposed on fishers. However, fishers were always at odds with ecologists and committed fraud to dodge the rules. But the resulting fines were low. The fish auctions also perpetuated this fraud, a situation which created a stumbling block for Dutch minister, Gerrit Braks in 1990.
Something had to change in policy-making. The first attempt in improvement involved transferable fishing rights. Fishers were allowed to buy and sell quotas among themselves.
Mr van Hoof said: "That was an elimination race in which stronger companies bought quotas from the weaker ones." Overfishing went down indeed because of fewer ships.
Half of the fishers to go
Meanwhile, fishermen did not do well economically. Since 2000, the cutter fleet has been reduced by half, and fishing villages such as Urk have been losing their identity gradually. Even now, Mr Van Hoof says, half of the fishermen would have to go for the rest to have reasonable earnings. He said: "But profit comes only fourth for a fisherman. Their first priority is continuity, followed by a business successor and being part of a fishing community."
Economist Mr van Hoof knows the fishing sector like the back of his hand. He was for many years head of fisheries research at LEI, part of Wageningen UR, and works currently at IMARES, also part of Wageningen UR. After the fishing rights, there are more far-reaching forms of participation by fishermen in policy-making. Under joint management, fishers and the government agree on when and how much to fish. As a result, the fish supply is spread throughout the year, which is better for pricing.
Then comes the collaboration between fishers and environmental organisations. An example is the covenant concerning mussel fishing in the Waddenzee.
Mr van Hoof explained: "There had been a really big dispute concerning the Waddenzee. For years, environmental organisations fought fisheries in court.
"Agreement among the parties was reached in the covenant. A covenant concerning the North Sea was also made among fishers, NGOs and the government. That brought huge investments in technical improvements to boats, resulting in less side catches thrown overboard nowadays. Fish would soon be MSC certified."
Mr van Hoof concludes that nothing but good can come from participation by fishermen in policy making.
He explained: "And this has taken place with amazing speed. The sector has, within a short period, changed from one with self-centred companies sitting in the dock to an open sector which recognises its responsibility to society."
The burden of proof, according to Mr Van Hoof, has therefore been reversed. While the government – with the help of scientists – used to impose restrictions on fisheries, the fisheries are now making themselves accountable to NGOs and the public. The government no longer tries to prove that fisheries cause damages, whereas the sector itself has to prove that it is fishing sustainably.
Mr van Hoof is graduating from his doctoral studies in the Environmental Policy Group of Wageningen University of Professor Tuur Mol. He defended his thesis, entitled 'Who rules the waves' on 15 September.