Opinion

EU fisheries reform losing momentum

20.08.12 @ 09:41

  1. By David Symes, Jesper Raakjaer and Troels Jacob Hegl

BRUSSELS - The final stage of the 2012 reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is nearing completion. After a promising start with the publication of an enlightened Green Paper in 2009, commitment to fundamental reform has lost momentum and the final outcome is likely to be disappointing.

  • "Policy reform is governed more by the will to preserve the status quo of EU institutions than by the need to ensure sustainability for the EU's important fishery resources" (Photo: EUobserver)

Subject to decennial review, the CFP has proved resistant to change. Previous attempts (1992, 2002) were characterised by lack of ambition, compromise over contentious issues and weak outcomes that compounded the problems rather than cured them.

This year was going to be different. The Green Paper set out a radical agenda for reform based on bold restructuring of the governance system that would place more responsibility for management in the hands of member states and their fishing industries. Three key elements were involved.

Regionalising the CFP would allow adaptation of EU policy to suit the particular conditions of the regional sea and member states, working together, would develop long term regional management plans intended to fulfil the policy's objectives and targets. It would provide the framework for a genuine ecosystem based approach to managing EU fisheries, allowing better use of technical conservation measures, the introduction of incentives for sustainable fishing and a reduced emphasis on output controls.

More controversially, the adoption of transferable fishing concessions (TFCs) across the EU's 'common pond' was intended to rationalise the fishing fleets, improve efficiency and give vessel owners more control over developing their businesses.

Finally, sectoral organisations would draw up annual fishing plans setting out how they intended to deliver the long term management plans. Thus, while regionalisation provided strategic direction, the region's fishermen were to assume individual and collective responsibility for the conduct of the fisheries.

What went wrong?

Things have not worked out as intended. Regionalisation as a policy transforming process was ruled out on legal grounds that it would challenge the EU's exclusive competence over conservation policy and contravene the Treaties that recognise only EU institutions and member states as legal partners in decision making. The Commission's proposals for a new basic regulation made the merest concessions concerning the delegation of powers to member states and no mention of collaboration at regional level. A vital source of energy for driving through changes to the governance system appeared to have been lost.

The Europe wide system of TFCs was dropped early in the consultation process following its hostile reception by a majority of MS fearing loss of fishing opportunities through cross border trade in fishing rights. Even the more modest proposals for mandatory national schemes appear to be under threat. There is little enthusiasm across Europe for what many regard as the privatisation of common property resources with uncertain, but very likely negative, consequences for small scale fisheries that help to underpin the sustainability of coastal communities.

Only stakeholder led annual fishing plans have survived, albeit in altered form. They are to be implemented under the revised Common Organisation of the Market as 'integrated production and marketing plans' drawn up by producer organisations. But without the strategic orientation of long term management planning at the regional level, it is difficult to see precisely how the annual plans will contribute to sustainable development of the region's fisheries.

What needs to be done?

It is not too late to repair some of the damage to the engine room of the 2012 reforms. Both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have signalled their intention of adding substance to the emasculated framework of regionalisation presented in the Commission's proposals for the new basic regulation. They must ensure that the door to improved governance and meaningful regionalisation is kept open through judicious wording of the new regulation.

The key elements of regionalisation are threefold. First, an opportunity must be provided for member states to work together informally to develop a long term ecosystem based strategy for managing the region's fisheries in line with marine environmental policy. Secondly, a robust system has to be created for coordinating scientific and stakeholder advice and agreeing specific actions to be undertaken by member states to improve fisheries management within their regional seas. Thirdly, links must be forged between the regional strategy, long term management plans and annual fishing plans to ensure coherent management. Not all elements will require specific provision in the new basic regulation. However, member states will need to be encouraged to pursue all three actions if fisheries and marine management are to be significantly improved.

If co-decision fails to restore credibility to the ideas of a stronger regional perspective and local inputs into the way fisheries are managed, the 2012 reforms will be remembered as another missed opportunity. It will raise questions as to whether the CFP can be fundamentally reformed. Moreover, it will invite criticism that policy reform is governed more by the will to preserve the status quo of EU institutions than by the need to ensure sustainability for the EU's important fishery resources and viability for Europe's fishing industries and coastal communities.

The authors are David Symes, University of Hull, UK, Jesper Raakjaer, Aalborg University, Denmark and Troels Jacob Hegland, Aalborg University, Denmark.