Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Opinion

Crunch time to end overfishing in the EU

  • Some 40 percent of fish populations in the north Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic are still being overfished. In the Mediterranean and Black Sea that figure is closer to 90 percent (Photo: World Bank)

Just because the most demanding issues that we face – be that curbing climate change, achieving literacy for all, or ending poverty – have long-term goals, that doesn't lessen their urgency.

Policy deadlines are intended to spur action, not delay it. By signalling the direction of travel, these deadlines are a critical element to managing a 'just transition' towards a sustainable society.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

But that signal goes unnoticed if the policy deadline is not really believed. And what happens when a difficult deadline hits?

This is precisely what is being played out in EU fisheries as we approach the landmark legal commitment under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to end overfishing by 2020.

Transport back in time to 2009. Looking ahead to the reform of the CFP, the European Commission reflected on the state of EU fisheries in its green paper.

The assessment was bleak: "European fish stocks have been overfished for decades and the fishing fleets remain too large for the available resources."

Seizing this urgent opportunity for change, a broad coalition formed to push for ambitious policy.

They argued that while overfished stocks would take time to return to historical levels, we could stop overfishing immediately by setting appropriate catch limits and fishing less.

The economic case was clear. Because fish stocks have been depleted through decades of overfishing, taking a conservationist approach would increase the size of fish stocks and – perhaps counterintuitively – mean greater catches within a decade.

While NGOs were pushing for a deadline to end overfishing by 2015, the large fishing industry groups wanted a later date.

In the end the 2013 reform of the CFP had a requirement to end overfishing for all commercial fish stocks "by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020".

Pyrrhic victories

We are now approaching the end of 2018, but 'possible' apparently wasn't possible.

According to the most recent assessment, 40 percent of fish populations in North Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic are still being overfished.

In the Mediterranean and Black Sea that figure is closer to 90 percent.

This is not to deny the CFP deadline was going to be hard work, but that was the entire point: transitions, particularly fairly managed ones, often are.

If policy isn't challenging, it means it's just 'business as usual', which is some instances – like overfishing a common resource to the detriment of future generations and the ecosystem – is unacceptable.

Clearly, what makes the politics of this difficult is that it's fishers themselves who bear the brunt of the challenge.

Fishing is one of the most challenging occupations – mentally, physically, financially – and remains the most dangerous.

The medium to long-term benefits of ending overfishing massively exceed the costs, but the short-term loss of income forces the fishing lobby to fight necessary change.

The current record profits in the fishing industry, while distributed unevenly, is a buffer to making reductions in fishing.

Unfortunately as we approach the 2020 deadline, member states are calling for a new process of assessment of the costs of complying with it at this short notice.

This may not produce cheery numbers; as anyone who has tried to get an emergency locksmith knows, the less time you have to do something, the more it costs.

This is why early action is preferable (as researchers have found), and it shows us that even if the economic analysis is done correctly (ie a consideration of both the costs and the benefits over an extended time period) the decision of when to do it is political.

Breaking cycle of delay, protest, postpone

Putting off action for so long that it becomes ever more 'costly' to comply creates moral hazard – where excessive risks are taken in the knowledge that the costs will be borne on someone else.

If the landmark 2020 deadline isn't met, why would any other policy in the Common Fisheries Policy be trusted?

Or what about other EU policies? You can be sure that other industries with something at stake in EU policy-making are watching fisheries with interest.

There is no hope for ambitious policy-making if there is no trust in the policy signals being sent.

There is a dangerous cycle of delay, protest, and postpone that not only fails policy objectives but undermines trust in political institutions.

As fish stocks in the deep sea have their fishing limits set on a two-year basis, this coming November is crunch time to see if the 2020 deadline and EU policy really means something.

Griffin Carpenter is a senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation

Disclaimer

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

EU can't fish off Western Sahara coast, rules top court

The Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco, is off limits to a new fisheries deal between the EU and Morocco, following a verdict by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The current agreement runs out in July.

EU-Morocco fishing deal casts doubt on EU future foreign policy

Not extending the EU fisheries deal with Morocco to fish off the disputed coast of Western Sahara could deprive the Sahrawi people of much-needed income - and throw into question future EU foreign policy in the name of human rights.

Magazine

EU fish wars ahoy

EU seas will contain "more" and "bigger" fish five years from now - if the fisheries committee does its job. But rows on post-Brexit rights could grab attention.

EU failed to end overfishing by 2020: lost opportunity?

Environmentalists denounce that the EU failed to comply with the legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020, putting at risk the sustainability of fish stocks by putting the interests of the fishing industry ahead of the health of its waters.

News in Brief

  1. EU postpones decision on labelling gas 'sustainable'
  2. MEPs call for mass surveillance ban in EU public spaces
  3. Greek and Turkish ministers trade jibes in Ankara
  4. Biden repeats opposition to Russia-Germany pipeline
  5. Navalny in danger, letter warns EU foreign ministers
  6. Lithuania keen to use Denmark's AstraZeneca vaccines
  7. Gas plants largest source of power-sector emissions
  8. Study: Higher risk of blood clots from Covid than vaccines

Column

Why Germans understand the EU best

In Germany, there is commotion about a new book in which two journalists describe meetings held during the corona crisis between federal chancellor Angela Merkel, and the 16 prime ministers of its federal constituent states.

Why Iceland isn't the gender paradise you think

Iceland's international reputation masks two blunt realities that face the country's women - the disproportionate levels of gender-based violence that they experience, and a justice system that is frequently suspicious and hostile towards victims of this violence.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region can and should play a leading role in Europe’s digital development
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council to host EU webinars on energy, digitalisation and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market

Latest News

  1. US rejects Slovenia-linked plan to break up Bosnia
  2. Ukraine urges Borrell to visit Russia front line
  3. Could US sanctions hit Russia vaccine sales to EU?
  4. Polish court pushes out critical ombudsman
  5. Political crises in Romania and Bulgaria amid third wave
  6. Von der Leyen's summer plans undisclosed, after Ukraine snub
  7. Over a million EU citizens back farm-animal cage ban
  8. Three options for West on Putin's Ukraine build-up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us