19th Mar 2018


Sea of subsidies

  • Votes in EU parliament committees this week have important implications for sustainable fishing (Photo: Bruno de Giusti)

This week, European Parliament members of the Regional Development, Employment and Environment Committees will cast their votes on the financial mechanism for European fisheries, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

At a time when the EU is facing one of the biggest economic crises of this generation, it is now more important than ever to ensure that public money is spent efficiently and for the public benefit.

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The state of European fisheries is no laughing matter; 47 percent of the assessed fish stocks in the Atlantic and 80 percent in the Mediterranean are overfished. Yet despite the precarious condition of fisheries in Europe and beyond, member states continue to provide massive subsidies to support and maintain fleets that are too large for what the ocean can sustainably provide.

Yet repeated attempts to tackle fleet overcapacity using subsidies have failed, and technological improvements have overshadowed any successful decrease in capacity. Because so many member states fail to properly report on whether their fleets are balanced in relation to the available resources, European taxpayer’s money is spent blindly on inadequate measures aimed to achieve this balance.

Furthermore, only a handful of the fleets in Europe are turning a solid profit without public support and a large portion are running losses. The fisheries sector is not living up to its economic potential, in part because governments focus on keeping unprofitable large scale fishing fleets afloat with taxpayers' money.

The European Commission’s proposal of a revised EMFF, which will replace the existing fund in 2014 and will last until 2020, attempts to reverse the spiral of subsidies-dependency in the sector. Many of the ineffective or potentially harmful subsidies, such as funding to build new fishing boats, renew engines or modernize boats, are excluded from the EMFF.

Despite clear evidence that these measures are frequently a waste of public money and detrimental to the environment, eight member states (France, Spain, Lithuania, Portugal, Poland, Malta, Ireland and Slovenia) are fighting the commission’s proposal to maintain EU subsidies that finance the modernization and scrapping of fishing vessels. Alain Cadec, the rapporteur in charge of the dossier in the European Parliament, is following a similar path at the Parliament level and goes as far as proposing to reintroduce funding to build new vessels into the EMFF.

Refusing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation in Europe and defending the status quo endangers the future of the already troubled sector. Continuing to spend public funds on inefficient measures will only push our fisheries deeper into crisis and further damage the state of the stocks.

The reform of the EMFF provides an opportunity to invest in a long term economic viability of the fishing industry. Priority should be given to measures that ensure productive and healthy oceans. Funding should support investments in marine protected areas, compliance controls, and scientific evaluations of the state of stocks. Studies have shown that eliminating harmful government subsidies worldwide and putting in place effective management systems would mean that in just 12 years, the returns of the fisheries sector would begin to outweigh the costs, and the total gains over 50 years would return the investment three- to seven-fold

The quality and availability of marine resources for future generations depends on the policy that is being shaped now. If the economic crisis has taught us anything, it’s that it is high time for decision makers to think about the long-term effects of their decisions.

This week’s votes and the upcoming Council of Ministers meeting to agree on a partial general approach for the EMFF are incredibly important if we are to rebalance fisheries and make the industry profitable and sustainable. For the sake of European fishers, and the resources that they depend on, it is crucial that they vote to eliminate subsidies which contribute to overfishing and redirect aid to supporting a transition towards truly sustainable fisheries.

The writer is Executive Director of Oceana Europe.

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