Thursday

13th May 2021

That time again: Science vs. industry on EU fish quotas

  • How much fish will Europeans be allowed to catch next year? (Photo: Ross Thomson)

Discussions between EU countries on quotas are an annual feature of the EU's fishery policy.

“It's that time of the season again”, said a source close to the Luxembourg presidency of the Council, which represents national governments.

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On Thursday (22 October), European fisheries ministries will attempt to clinch a political deal on next year's fishing limits in the Baltic Sea. Fish quota for other seas will follow later this year.

It is an annual haggle over which country gets to catch how many of a selection of species.

It also prompts regular accusations from environmental organisations that fish quotas are set too generously, threatening the sustainability of stocks.

But change is on the horizon, and some voices say sustainability is increasingly becoming a factor in the talks.

Sustainable fishing: the MSY factor

In any case, EU politicians should pay more heed to the principle if they want to follow their own rules.

As of 2014, the EU's common fisheries policy has the official objective to introduce fish quota tied to the so-called Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) “by 2015 where possible, and by 2020 at the latest”.

MSY is a concept that says, for each fish species, there is a number of fish that can be caught without depleting the stock. It is based on projections from scientists.

The fish quota are determined by the EU member states, based on proposals from the EU Commission. The European Parliament is not involved.

Since 2010 the Commission has started to use MSY science to propose quotas, although not necessarily for all stocks. Of the 10 Baltic stocks that will be discussed on Thursday, seven proposed quota are based on MSY.

Oceana, an environmental lobby organisation, “urges EU fisheries ministers to rebuild Baltic stocks by applying science”, it said in a press release earlier this week.

“European fisheries ministers must stop ignoring scientific advice and definitely abandon the political short-term perspective”, Oceana said, noting that after 2020 “overfishing will become illegal under EU law”.

However, until then, other factors haven proven hard to ignore, since the obligation to use MSY “by 2015 where possible” is open to interpretation.

Economic factors

Ministers are under pressure from their national fishing industries not to accept too strict limits.

“Fishermen are facing a tough time”, said a press release of Europeche, a lobby organisation representing fishing companies.

“Our aim is to see healthy stocks at abundant levels and we want to see decision-makers reach a fair and realistic agreement for the Baltic plan which respects the legal framework and ensures the sector can continue to be viable.”

The EU presidency source noted that ministers cannot ignore these economic arguments.

“Ministers are indeed responsible to achieve sustainability”, he said. “Ministers are also responsible to take into account the economic and social consequences. The decision cannot be 100 percent based on science.”

“I'm sure we will have a political compromise that perhaps is not perfect from a purely scientific point of view, but which is politically, socially, economically realisable”, the contact added.

However, the source noted that “every year the pressure increases to approximate that objective” of science-based fish quota.

'Becoming the norm'

Last December, after all fish quota had been set, environmental commissioner Karmenu Vella said “science-based decision-making is increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception”.

However, according to a calculation by Oceana, fisheries ministers still "ignored 56 percent of the scientific advice”.

Vella said that several member states were “not in the position” to accept the Commission's proposals, but that they would “take the necessary decisions so as to avoid real disasters happening later on”.

When this website asked the Commission what necessary decisions have been taken in the past 10 months, it received no response.

Meanwhile, the annual haggling could become a thing of the past, if member states can reach agreement with the European Parliament about a long-term plan for fishing in the Baltic.

The institutions need to reach a deal on the Commission-proposed “Multiannual plan for the stocks of cod, herring and sprat in the Baltic Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks.”

The idea is that longer-term plans give more certitude to the fishing industry on what they will be allowed to catch.

But the file has been stuck in the institutions’ so-called trilogue debates since May this year.

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