Taking stock of EU fisheries restructuring

7 April 2014

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) sets rules on who can fish where, how, and when in EU waters.  It has far reaching ramifications because it also applies to EU fleets fishing beyond the bloc's waters, the marketing of fisheries and aquaculture imports  and exports, as well as how much and what measures to fund to effectively implement the policy in a six year budget time frame. Historically, CFP reform was dealt with by the Council of Ministers on the basis of a legislative reform proposal from the Commission. As a consequence of the Lisbon Treaty, the latest CFP reform cycle was for the first time subject to co-decision between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

The CFP is reviewed every ten years. From WWF's perspective it offers an unparalleled opportunity to turn the tide on overfishing, as well as to put the EU on track towards sustainable fisheries management and healthy oceans. In April 2009, the Commission launched the latest reform process with a release of a Green Paper that depicted the dire state of most European fisheries. The Green Paper admitted that the EU had failed so far on several key points. First, it stressed that most stocks have not recovered since the 2002 reforms. Secondly, the percentage of overfished stocks still hovered at about 88 percent. The paper also noted that overall EU fleet capacity remained virtually unchanged - at a level two to three times higher than appropriate. Finally, the Commission drew attention to the persistence of a lack of political will to override scientific advice in setting catch levels.

Eurozone crisis and impact on reform

The Commission then called for bold and sweeping reforms to rectify the listed failings. This proved difficult to execute, particularly in light of the Eurozone fiscal crisis that touched many industries in Europe, including the fisheries sector. Political priorities focussed on preserving jobs and maintaining the status quo.  Responding to the economic turmoil, WWF and other allies argued that fisheries reforms that enable fish stocks to return to sustainable levels will result in an increase in landings, profit, and income for the fisheries sector and fishermen.

Some positive outcomes, will these be enough?

Amidst the challenging economic and political hurdles, the concerted efforts by likeminded organisations and individuals from the European Parliament, key member states and environmental groups helped deliver a final legislation with some positive elements.

For example, conservation targets were set to "maximum sustainable yield" for all stocks, i.e. a limit on the catch to no more than what the stock can reproduce in a given year. This is unprecedented and will, hopefully, put an end to politicians ignoring scientific advice when setting annual catch allocations and quotas from now on. EU policymakers also agreed on measures to reduce discards at sea, as well as to add new commitments for a regionalised approach to fisheries management, with acknowledgement of stakeholders playing a key role in the decision making process. Elsewhere, provisions were strengthened to withhold financial assistance in case of non-compliance with CFP obligations.  More importantly, EU distant water fishing fleets will now only get access to fish surplus in third countries and there are new and improved measures to prevent flag hopping - where owners seek to register their vessels in more lax jurisdictions. Whether or not these measures will add up to fulfil the commitment to end overfishing in the coming years remain to be seen. The critical part of implementing the agreed measures and commitments on the CFP is just starting. The Commission has now organised a consultation process to develop the implementation guidelines, with the responsibility to carry these out placed on member states.

Funds to support CFP implementation

The EU policymakers also agreed to allocate €6,396 ($US 8,798) million to finance the implementation of the CFP for the period 2014-2020. €4,340.8 ($US 5,985.6) million will be shared between the EU and the member states for the "sustainable development of fisheries and aquaculture." The rest of the funds will be used to support improved data collection, control and enforcement, the implementation of the Integrated Maritime Policy, and aid for producer organisations in case of crisis until 2018.

As part of the funding negotiations, it was disappointing that EU policymakers - despite all the scientific warnings and advice - still agreed to provide direct subsidies to modernise engines for fishing vessels, including trawlers. The move could hamper efforts to reduce fishing capacity and end overfishing. On the positive side, they upheld a 2002 ban on subsidies for the construction of new vessels. Support was provided for a package of jobs for young fishermen and training for sustainable fishing practices, as well as a number of other measures intended to improve the conditions of coastal communities. Significantly, it was agreed to increase investments for data collection, control, and enforcement measures.  These critical fisheries management measures were one of the key demands made by a coalition of environmental NGOs - BirdLife Europe, Greenpeace, Seas at Risks, Oceana, OCEAN 2012 and WWF - working on CFP reform other than calling for an end to incentives to overfishing.

Effective management and transparency measures beyond the EU

Effective data collection, control, and enforcement are essential prerequisites for responsible fisheries management. It can help improve the situation of data-limited fish stocks in European seas and allow for better scientific assessments. It also introduces greater accountability in fishing activities and will give fisheries authorities a chance at fighting illegal fishing, which accounts for a rough average of 40 percent of landings in EU ports, according to a report by the Pew Environment Group.

In the global arena, the EU is a key player on fisheries negotiations - given the size of its market and subsidies - under the Doha Development Agenda of the WTO. But while WTO trade negotiations have admittedly moved at a snail's pace, pushing for increased transparency and reporting on fisheries subsidies would be an opportunity for the EU to galvanise support from willing WTO members. This could make a real difference even without further negotiations. Subsidies notification and trade policy review processes help to improve access to information about national programmes, promoting information exchange and continued discussion of national subsidy policies within formal WTO conversations. Enhancing access to information and transparency with regards to subsidy notification is one element of the fisheries subsidies reform agenda where practical solutions are available and achievable, but this will require the right political will. At the WTO Ministerial Meeting in Bali, Indonesia in December 2013, the EU missed an opportunity to join a group of governments who reaffirmed their commitment not to introduce any new subsidies that contribute to overfishing or the overcapacity of fishing fleets. The EU could do a lot more to reduce global overcapacity and overfishing. As a first step, however, championing improved transparency would be one easy and practical way where the EU could play a constructive role at the WTO once again.

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