• European consumers eat nearly twice the fish that our oceans can provide. (Photo: EU commission)

Opinion

EU's new fisheries policy: throwing a lifeline to the oceans.

13.09.11 @ 13:24

  1. By Xavier Pastor

Fisheries policy has never been the type of issue that lives in the spotlight. Yet we now find ourselves at a time when what is at stake with the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is nothing short of the future of European fisheries.

European consumers eat nearly twice the fish that our oceans can provide, our over-subsidized fleet is too big, too powerful and not selective enough, and according to the Commission, 91 percent of fish stocks in Europe could be at risk in the next decade if nothing is done to reverse this trend.

It is clear that this reform will affect everyone from fishermen to consumers, and from policy makers to their constituents.

The Commission’s CFP reform proposal is far from perfect, but it is a laudable effort that represents an improvement over the 2002 policy: it attempts to strengthen the environmental pillar in its list of objectives, imposes the obligation to implement the precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management, and focuses on longer-term management.

It also incorporates the objective that by 2015 all stocks be exploited above levels which can produce the Maximum Sustainable Yield. So far, so good – but that’s about where the good news ends.

Unfortunately, the Commission has proposed a some what conflicting policy that is torn between its conservation and exploitation objectives. For example, the proposal describes a CFP that is focused on the long term, as is evidenced by the support of long-term management plans, yet it sets no objectives past 2015, which let’s be honest, might as well be tomorrow.

Lack of a roadmap

Given that the EU is bound by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to achieve good environmental status in its marine waters by 2020, the lack of a roadmap to get there is disheartening.

This CFP should be, in essence, an environmental policy, wherein environmental considerations are a prerequisite to social and economic sustainability. Marine conservation is simply not the enemy of fisheries management, and it is critical that the industry, EU member states and all other stakeholders understand this.

The ecosystem-based approach (EBA) reconciles fisheries management with an ecosystem perspective, aiming at the long term viability of exploitation through the equilibrium and health of the ecosystem.

The EBA is what we must see properly implemented into any reform if we truly wish to see positive change in both the industry and our seas. At this stage in the debate, EBA sounds more like a buzzword. Everyone is talking about it, so it was included in the objectives of the CFP proposal, but because no one knows exactly what it means, no mechanism for its implementation was included.

What it in fact means is shifting from management based only on fish stocks to one based on the entirety of the ecosystem, thereby broadening the current basic management to incorporate, for example the interactions of targeted species in the food chain, or the resilience of each ecosystem impacted.

This will be a true challenge in the coming months as negotiations ramp up, but if it is properly done, it can change the future of fisheries management in Europe for the better.

Ending over exploitation of fish stocks

The first step towards implementing this approach is a simple one, but it is also one that we in Europe have failed to take time and again: ending the over exploitation of our fish stocks.

Our first priority should be to adapt the amount we take out of the sea to the availability of the resource. In Europe over the past 10 years, 41% of scientific advice has been ignored by fisheries ministers when setting fishing opportunities for our fleets, putting not only our stocks and marine ecosystems in jeopardy, but also the future of the communities that depend on them.

The Commission’s proposal makes a brave attempt to stop the political bargaining over TACs and quotas by requiring that fishing opportunities be set “in accordance with scientific advice.”

The reduction of overcapacity in the EU’s fishing fleet is also indispensable to any attempt at reversing the downward spiral. However the Commission’s proposal to create a “Transferable Fishing Concessions” scheme will lead to nothing but the concentration of fishing rights ownership in the hands of large companies without any means by which to monitor or control what is happening with these rights.

The only way to truly end overcapacity is to impose legally binding capacity reduction targets and eliminate harmful subsidies.

The current proposal has a way to go before it can effectively tackle the problem at hand. Sadly, those who refuse to see beyond their short term economic incentives are seeking to water-down the proposal’s already weak environmental focus. There is much work ahead, and considering that this may be one of the last opportunities to bring our oceans back, the upcoming months of negotiations are certainly daunting.

The writer is the Executive Director of Oceana in Europe