EU Clinches Major Overhaul to Fisheries Policy

6 June 2013

The European Union announced last Thursday that it will implement major reforms aimed at putting a stop to decades of overfishing and rebuilding its dwindling stocks by 2020. The move is part of a once-in-a-decade reform of the bloc's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), a policy framework that manages domestic fisheries and fishing activities beyond EU waters.

The reforms will see EU fishing nations reduce the size of their fleets to reflect their overall quotas or face the loss of some subsidies. Observers say the move will quell annual haggling over catch quotas by EU ministers in Brussels, which are widely blamed for prioritising short-term economic gains over the long-term health of Europe's fish stocks.

Irish agriculture and fisheries minister Simon Coveney revealed that quotas will be set on the basis of maximum sustainable yield levels to ensure that an underlying fish breeding stock is protected. Maximum sustainable yield is the optimal catch that may be taken from a fishing stock every year without endangering its capacity to regenerate for the future.

Discarding - the practice of throwing unwanted fish overboard - will also be banned in phases between 2015 and 2019. European fishermen throw almost 2 million tonnes of unwanted fish back into the sea annually.

In a statement following the announcement of the deal, British liberal MEP and head of the European Parliament's "Fish for the Future" group Chris Davies described the landmark move as a major step in promoting sustainable fishing.

The deal is now waiting to be rubber-stamped by EU governments and the full European Parliament before entering force next year, but analysts say the details are unlikely to change since they were already intensely involved in the negotiations.

Decades-old fishing crisis for Europe a "disgrace"

Green groups say the situation has been dismal for Europe's fish stocks and fishing sector. According to WWF, some two thirds of assessed fish stocks are over-fished. The organisation also revealed that 9 out of 10 stocks will be at unsustainable levels by 2022 if nothing is done about the existing policy.

The current policy, adopted by European Parliament in late 2002, only allows Brussels to suggest fishing quotas that should be implemented by the member states. However, Brussels has no power to enforce these limits. (See Bridges Trade BioRes, 23 January 2003) This has led to annual political haggling over quotas among member states, with powerful fishing industry lobbies heavily involved.

Environment groups have criticised the current CFP for driving decades of overfishing. The most recent data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reveals that Europe had the third-highest fish catches in 2010, with half of its catches coming from Denmark, Spain, Britain, and France.

Generous subsidies under the current CFP have also encouraged massive overcapacity in the fishing fleet. Overcapacity is when too many fish are caught by a fleet given its inputs and resource condition. A 2011 European Court of Auditors report revealed overcapacity to be one of the main reasons for the failure of the current CFP, despite past attempts at reform, including a ban on subsidies for the construction of new vessels.

"Our treatment of Europe's seas has been a disgrace," Davies said. "But we have learnt lessons. Across Europe there is a strong desire now to listen to the scientists, rebuild fish stocks, cut discards, and give our fishing industry a better future."

Responses toward reforms

Against this backdrop, many environmental groups have cautiously applauded the proposed reforms. The overarching aims of the reforms are meant to end overfishing and make fishing more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. The changes also aim to create job opportunities in coastal areas and ensure that EU citizens can continue to have a healthy and sustainable supply of fish.

"The success of any policy depends on two things: what's written and how we implement it," said Amelie Malafosse, policy advisor at Oceana. "The 2002 CFP was by no means perfect, but a better implementation would have offset many of its shortcomings."

Officials are more optimistic about the reform, claiming that following scientific advice more closely when setting quotas could increase EU fish stocks by up to 15 million tonnes by the end of the decade.

The next few months will see finalisation, formal adoption, and validation by the Council, followed by a second reading in the European Parliament. Once this is done, the reforms are expected to enter into force by 1 January 2014 with a progressive implementation of the new rules.

ICTSD reporting; "EU Seals Reform Deal to Replenish Fish Stocks," REUTERS, 30 May 2013; "Questions and Answers on the New, Reformed Common Fisheries Policy," EUROPEAN COMMISSION, 30 May 2013.

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