16th Jul 2019


The fishy bail-out

The recent financial hardship has brought to light numerous economic blunders, from easily obtained loans to financial management schemes that bear more resemblance to Russian roulette than sane policy making.

Many European citizens are unaware that their taxes are funding a similar case of bad investments in the European fisheries sector.

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  • European oceans are in crisis and an increasing number of marine species are overfished. (Photo: EUobserver)

European oceans are in crisis and an increasing number of marine species are overfished. Despite the precarious state of fish stocks in Europe, the fishing sector has been given billions in subsidies over the years, which has resulted in a fleet that is estimated to be two to three times greater than what sustainable limits would allow, and has led to overfishing both in the EU and internationally.

The European Commission has long recognised the need to curb the exponential growth of its fleet and has, since 1994, spent €1.7 billion to reduce fleet capacity. Unfortunately, despite the exorbitant amounts of money thrown at the problem, they failed to make a real dent in the situation.

To reverse the downwards spiral of subsidy dependence in the sector the Commission has proposed a revamped financial mechanism, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which will replace the existing fund in 2014. In this proposal the Commission makes a laudable effort to address some of the deficiencies of the current funding mechanism.

Lack of scientific data is paralyzing the EU fisheries decision making process. Withholding data has become a political bargaining chip for EU Member States; without data the scientific bodies cannot provide advice, which increases the chance for the member states to get the quota they want.

The European Commission tries to tackle this problem, at least from a financial perspective, by providing more funding for data in the EMFF – a move which will make the "administrative burden and lack of funding" excuse less tempting for member states.

In another positive step, the commission makes the availability of funds conditional on compliance with the Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing regulation and EU fisheries policy, while also increasing funding for monitoring and control.

Previous financial mechanisms saw shocking examples of subsidies beneficiaries involved in Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing come to light. In one case an owner and operator, whose vessels were on international IUU black lists, was awarded almost €10 million over 10 years.

To date, the EU and member states have been guilty of turning a blind eye to environmental objectives and little financial aid has been awarded to projects that conserve marine resources. Adding insult to injury, environmentally harmful fishing methods have benefitted abundantly from modernisation or fuel subsidies. Fortunately, the proposal for the first time provides funding specifically for Marine Protected Areas, giving fishermen a role in monitoring and managing them.

Despite these positive steps, today's proposal still contains a number of questionable subsidies, such as port improvements and marketing campaigns, which reduce costs for fishing operations by artificially increasing profits. This type of funding is problematic because it allows fishermen to fish further out and longer, putting added strain on already overfished stocks. Furthermore, it removes the incentive for the industry to apply best practices or a sustainability approach to their efforts.

Depending on import

Growing demand for fish combined with local resource depletion has made the EU reliant on importing as much as 60 percent of what it consumes.

The commission’s 'silver bullet' solution to this problem has been to boost funding for aquaculture, believing it will help reduce pressure on wild stocks. Unfortunately, when taking into account the amount of wild fish required to 'produce' farmed fish (it takes four kilograms of wild fish to produce one kilo of salmon) this 'solution' quickly proves to be flawed. Instead of improving the state of stocks, expanding aquaculture will put a strain on fish populations that cannot supply the demand.

A final area of concern is the commission’s use of the EMFF to fund a system of transferable fishing concessions (TFC) to target overcapacity. In practice, imposing a market-driven system on marine resources has not been proven to augment responsibility of fishermen or a decrease of fishing capacity or fishing effort.

Instead, this mechanism, which aims to concentrate fishing rights in the hand of few operators, has led to uncontrolled quota leasing and has shown itself to be detrimental to resource sustainability, to equity in the sector and to consumers. The only measure that will truly tackle overcapacity is to impose legally binding capacity reduction targets, which the TFC system does not do.

To secure the availability of marine resources for future generations the EU must move away from funding practices that are not environmentally sustainable. If this economic crisis has taught anything, it is that it is past time for decision makers to consider the long term effect of their decisions.

Xavier Pastor is the executive director of Oceana Europe


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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