Tuesday

18th Feb 2020

EU failed to end overfishing by 2020: lost opportunity?

  • The EU could now even face court challenges from NGOs over its failure to end overfishing (Photo: Jason Taellious)

Environmentalists believe that the European Union is putting at risk the sustainability of fish stocks by putting the interests of the fishing industry ahead of the health of its waters.

During the 2013 reform of the EU's overarching fishing regulations, also known as the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), all member states committed to ending overfishing by 2015 - or by 2020 at the latest - to restore and protect all EU stocks in a sustainable way.

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Yet, overfishing will continue this year in contravention of EU law.

In December, EU ministers gathered to establish fishing opportunities in the form of yearly 'total allowable catches' (TACs) and quotas by fish stocks in the different EU fishing areas, in what was expected to be the final step towards the legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020.

According to the new fisheries commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius, almost all fish landings from the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea would now come from sustainable resources.

Cod at risk

However, the deal struck in Brussels failed to meet targets recommended by scientists, who believe that key stocks such as cod, seabass, hake and herring are still overfished - and that, in particular, the cod population is still at critical levels.

Although ministers agreed on cod-fishing restrictions and new quotas that might mark a step in the right direction, environmental campaigners have denounced the EU's failure to comply with the legal deadline.

The agreement reached in December demonstrates "that fisheries ministers cannot be entrusted with restoring healthy ocean ecosystems," said Rebecca Hubbard, programme director at NGO Our Fish.

The group also denounced the fact that EU ministers have exceeded scientific advice six out of every ten times since the last EU's fishing law reform.

"By agreeing to continue overfishing, EU fisheries ministers are refusing to pull their weight in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises," Hubbard added.

According to Anne-Cécile Dragon, a maritime scientist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), "it is fundamental for EU credibility, especially in the context of the European Green Deal and other looming environmental deadlines that the EU and its member states finally deliver on their promises".

Legal challenge?

One group even warned of a potential legal challenge to the agreement.

"This is not just a political failure. The deadline is a legal obligation and courts exist to enforce it," said Nick Goetschalckx, a lawyer at NGO ClientEarth, who believes that the European Parliament is in a "privileged position" to ensure that ending overfishing is now upheld.

"In the current state of an environmental emergency, we cannot continue to let political horse-trading turn laws and deadlines into a farce by finding ways around them as soon as they bite," he added.

However, when it comes to setting the annual quotas (TACs), "the EU parliament can only put pressure on the commission and the council to follow as closely as possible the scientific advice provided," an EU official told EUobserver.

According to Jenni Grossmann, policy advisor at ClientEarth, "everyone involved in the process, including the commission, EU fisheries ministers and the EU council, is to blame when fishing limits don't follow scientific advice".

Back in 2018, the European Environment Agency denounced overfishing, chemical pollution and climate change as among the main causes of the poor state of ecosystems in Europe's seas.

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