Reports 2011

Fishy Business - Time to reform EU fisheries policy?

9 November 2011

Business as usual is no longer an option for the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and change is “absolutely necessary,” said Maria Damanaki, EU commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries.

Sustainability must be at the heart of the reform process: from an environmental, economic and social perspective, explained Damanaki. “We need to be sincere and honest: without environmental sustainability first, stocks won’t survive and there’ll be no business, no economic activity and no fisheries commissioner!” she said.

“There are fewer and fewer fish in the sea,” Damanaki said, making the case for reform. “That’s not an NGO invention and it’s not just environmentalists who are saying it: we have the concrete facts. It’s about realism. We need stocks to feed our children and save our future,” she said.

Catch sizes have been declining since the 1990s, but EU taxpayers’ money has been used to build ever larger fleets. “Now we’re giving fishermen money to stay alive, because there are no fish left,” Damanaki deplored.

The European Commission wants to phase out discards and achieve environmental sustainability by 2015. Enforcing maximum sustainable yields should secure social sustainability and banning discards should help fish stocks to recover, the commissioner explained.

“We must help fishermen to market their products. Let’s get more from the fish we catch: catch less, earn more,” Damanaki said.

Nevertheless, she said a step-by-step approach would be required to soften the economic blow. “If we end discards tomorrow then we’ve got to give fishermen another way to use fish,” she said.

Financial support for the transition could come from a European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, the commissioner argued. The Fund could also finance fishermen who don’t overfish or fish during spawning periods because they carry out alternative activities instead, like clearing the oceans of litter.

“It’s important to take action against overfishing and towards sustainable management. But what will happen to traditional fishing communities? They have a multifunctional societal role in coastal areas and have a huge value beyond catching fish, especially in producing public goods,” warned Portuguese MEP Maria do Céu Patrão Neves, a member of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee who sits in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group.

“The maximum sustainable yield goal is very ambitious and the Commission is well aware of this. It should be a goal, but not at any price. It will be very difficult to achieve by 2015 because the reform won’t be properly in place until 2013,” the MEP said.

“The price to pay will be very high: the death of some fishing communities,” she warned.

Neves expressed concern over the scientific basis adopted for the Commission’s ecosystem approach. “How will we put good intentions into practice?” she wondered.

“Giving member states the responsibility to implement the scientific approach is a worry: how neutral and objective will it be?” Neves asked.

The MEP also called for new EU marketing standards and clearer labelling to provide consumers with information on fish products, for example whether a fishery is sustainable.

The international community must also fulfil its obligations if global fish stocks are to recover, Neves warned. “We need to able to go and fish elsewhere with our own good practices. Bu other countries don’t act so responsibly,” she complained.

“The CFP is unsustainable and a failure: there’s little disagreement here, so this is a unique opportunity to change it. The status quo cannot continue,” said Markus Knigge, advisor to the Pew Environment Group.

“We’re not as enthusiastic as the commissioner: there’s nothing in the legal text to back up her claims regarding environmental sustainability. The only environmental point is the discard ban. But there’s plenty of emphasis on protecting livelihoods and communities,” Knigge said.

He questioned whether the model enshrined by the CFP was the right way to go. “Shouldn’t we be creating a system that rewards fishermen who catch in a sustainable way? There’s too much presumption that small-scale fisheries are benign. If that were true, we wouldn’t be seeing problems in the Mediterranean or the Baltic,” he claimed.

Knigge would prefer to see “a toolbox of access regimes” rather than a one-size-fits-all model. “We can’t have super-efficient 9.99m boats that are just under the threshold,” he argued.

Moreover, the development of environmentally-friendly fleets must not contribute to over-capacity. “We need to think much more carefully about which ships we scrap and which new ones we build,” Knigge said, accusing the EU of spending too much on the private sector instead of restructuring the public sector.

Managing marine resources more effectively, reducing existing capacity and improving sustainability should be central goals of the new EU fisheries policy, said German Jeub, director of EU policy and fisheries at the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection.

Reaching agreement on these priorities will be easy, he predicted, promising that Germany would back the maximum sustainable yield principle. “But the devil is in the detail of the Commission’s proposals,” he warned.

“Managing EU waters sustainably is one thing, but more emphasis must be placed on achieving sustainability in waters outside the EU,” he said.