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Fisheries reform set to fail over environmental inaction.

 BRUSSELS – Europe’s lack of political will has been blamed for the failure to act on decades of illegal overfishing. Now, there are fears that nothing has changed as it is more than ever a contentious issue between Brussels, fishermen and environmental groups.

By Carla Johnson

Fish Markets in Brussels, just one of the countries in the EU which makes Europe the highest consumer of seafood in the world.


The European Commission is calling on the European Parliament, Member States and the fishing industry to support their Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform proposal as Europe’s fishing industry is on the brink of collapsing. Based on three pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental the proposal aims at reducing the risks of overfishing.

I want to go for sustainability as a whole. I am talking about environmental sustainability by moving to Maximum Sustainable Yield 2015 and phasing out discards (undersized or unwanted fish) . I am talking about social sustainability, because we can build up healthy fish stocks in our waters and this is the best way to increase our fishermen’s income,” says Commissioner for Marine Affair and Fisheries Maria Damanaki.


So far sustainability has been the one thing that members of the Commission, Parliament and Council have agreed upon. Portuguese Member of the European Parliament who is on the committee for  fisheries, Maria Neves also shares this view. “I share with Madam Damanaki her conception of global sustainability not only environmental but social and economic. We have to establish a balance amongst these three pillars between the CFP”.

Environmental considerations

A European Union impact assessment this year demonstrated that currently 75% of all fish species in European waters have been overfished. If current trends continue only eight fish stocks out of 136 will be sustainable by 2020. It is now hoped that with this year’s release of the European Commission’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform proposal, that acknowledgement of the CFP’s past failures and the increasing concern about overfishing is a step in the right direction

The Commission is currently trying to emphasise the positive points on sustainability and their concern about overfishing as the proposal is coming under increasing fire from environmental groups. 

Saskia Richartz from the NGO Greenpeace says they have again been left disappointed with the Commission’s actions, who have failed to provide concrete details and targets to achieve aspirations on any environmental points in the new reform proposal.

We don’t think that the proposed CFP has sufficient targets, in fact it only has one target, which is the recovery of fish stocks by 2015. We support it, but it is missing a target date for implementing multi-annual plans, it’s missing feed reduction targets and its also missing targets such as the agreed target to recover the health of stocks by 2020”, she says.

Adviser to the Pew Environment Group’s European Marine Programme Markus Knigge, is currently working at the forefront of Pew’s efforts to ensure that the reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy ends overfishing in the EU and by EU vessels. He says that the Commission have not placed nearly enough priority on the environment in the new proposal.

We unfortunately do not see it [sustainability pillars] through the same eyes. In the legal text there is nothing saying that the environment should be prioritised or, that first there should be environmental sustainability in order to achieve economic and social sustainability,” says Markus Knigge.

The science can not be ignored

According to the Pew Environmental Group, politicians continuously decide on quotas without consideration of scientific advice. “For a ten-year period, the scientific advice was actually surpassed by 48% by politicians. There is no excuse [for continued overfishing] in terms of social concerns or economic concerns. It’s a no-brainer from our perspective,” says Markus Knigge.

Frustration builds amongst environmentalists in particular over the council spending so much energy every year on deciding quotas that aren’t enforced by many member states. Markus Knigge suggests that the EU looks to the models in United States and Australia for examples, who after listening to the scientists, have imposed a complete ban on overfishing.

They [the USA and Australia] just say it’s illegal, there is no discussion any more about taking social arguments or economic arguments into consideration and it has succeeded. They have improvement in stocks and fisheries and it’s relatively simple.”

Good in theory

The main solutions proposed by the Commission to deal with overfishing is the decentralisation and regionalisation of the policy. The idea works off a bottom-up approach to empower fishermen and governments to set quotas, penalties and sanctions.

The highly respected Fishmongers Company in the UK have a long history of ensuring the quality and sustainability of fish sold through the UK. Chris Leftwitch, Chief Inspector for the Fishmongers Company, states that while the idea is great in theory, putting in to practice is where all the problems start.

The EU has given no guidance to what they mean by regionalisation so, of course the problems start to manifest themselves,” he says.

The Commission states that this point on regionalisation was left open to interpretation intentionally to empower member states and give them more control over the policy. Mr Leftwitch adds however that, “that all sounds very good until you work out that you then have 27 different countries who want to put the meat on the bones, all with their own vested interest.”

Commissioner Damanaki agrees and continues to stress, in her discussion of the proposal, that if fish stocks are to survive and environmental sustainability is to improve, accurate information is needed. It is agreed among all parties that enforcement that remains the problem. This was demonstrated in the realise of a Pew Environmental Group report which stated that Bluefin Tuna had been over fish by 140% in 2010.


San Domenico, Italy: One of the thousand of Fishing port scattered around the European coast line. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Changing behaviours

Commissioner Damanaki states that it is fisherman need to learn to change their behaviour and Member States who should start supporting and promote the cooperation between scientists working in conjunction with the fisherman.

We have a problem with data delivery and we need to tackle this. Without data there can be no proper scientific advice. This is why I want to invest here and improve the co-operation between the fishing industry and the scientists.”

Chris Leftwitch says that until the EU can change its behaviour and deliver on its aspirations, its seems that the industry and environmental groups remain sceptical about any changes on environmental sustainability.

We appreciate and applaud a lot of things that are coming out from the commission but the chance of all these going through is slim, unless you have some high objectives that are set and enforced by Brussels.”