Monday, 20 December 2010

Biodiversity can’t be lost at sea

The EU committed itself to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010. Clearly that target has not been met, and marine biodiversity continues to steadily decline. The main reasons for this failure were threefold: lack of political will to prioritise biodiversity protection, lack of intermediate milestones to assess progress towards the 2010 target, and lack of integration of biodiversity considerations into sectoral policies.

The Council has recently endorsed a new and ambitious target to halt biodiversity loss and restore, where possible, lost or damaged ecosystems by 2020. Meeting this new deadline will be no simple task, and it will demand that the EU seriously addresses the shortcomings which caused the 2010 failure.

A key tool for meeting this deadline will be the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), whose aim is to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) in EU marine waters by 2020. The Directive not only mentions that biodiversity must be maintained, it also specifically identifies certain sectoral problems which must be addressed in order to achieve GES. Key among these are overfishing and the accumulation of waste at sea. These problems can only be solved if European policy makers are, firstly, honest enough to acknowledge their magnitude and, secondly, ambitious enough to impose bold measures.

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has resulted in 88% of assessed European fish stocks being overfished, and 30% being outside safe biological limits. The CFP has failed not only in environmental terms, but also in social and economic terms. The European Parliament and the Council must take the opportunity posed by the CFP reform to reverse this. Healthy seas are a prerequisite for abundant fish stocks and thriving fishing communities – therefore, the environment must be at the heart of the reformed CFP. This entails providing preferential access to fish resources to appropriately-scaled community-based fisheries, using ecologically responsible fishing practices. Bold decisions are needed - nothing short of a radical overhaul of the CFP will do.

Marine litter is a different, yet also manageable problem. Its impact is obvious; from the harm it can cause through entanglement through to the absorption of micro plastics into foods chains by smaller organisms, its effect is shocking. Seas At Risk’s work is particularly concerned with litter sourced from ships. In this, the EU must impose a number of measures, such as having a fee structure in place across European ports that incentivises ships not to dump waste at sea and enforces adequate port reception facilities for ship waste.

Nevertheless, all our efforts to halt the loss of marine biodiversity will be hindered by the effects of climate change. Changes in the physical properties of oceans and seas are already impacting marine life. Ocean acidification is threatening the survival of several organisms, and the knock-on effects on food webs mean that it is only a matter of time before larger marine organisms are threatened. In light of the stumbling climate negotiations, the EU must increase its own efforts to bring about strong GHG cuts across Europe and use this to further incentivise cuts in other countries.

The Parliament, the Council, and the Commission have their work cut out when it comes to protecting marine biodiversity. I just hope that this UN International Year of Biodiversity has made all three institutions fully aware of the problem, and that all three act in unison to protect not only our seas, but our futures too.

By Monica Verbeek

The article is an edited version of a piece that first appeared in the Parliament Magazine earlier this year.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Marine litter: It’s a global issue, but is there regional ‘will’ to act?

Listening to the opinions of delegates at a panel discussion organised by Seas At Risk at this year’s OSPAR Environment Summit, it seems that everyone agrees marine litter is an issue of concern, it just appears that political will to act, unlike the problem itself, is difficult to find.

This is perhaps surprising when you consider the discovery of ocean ‘garbage patches’, the astonishing findings of national beach clean-ups and monitoring programmes and of course the shocking photographic evidence of marine birds with their stomach’s filled to the rim with plastic remnants. Somehow, however, this evidence has not been enough to propel political will to the extent whereby ambitious and progressive actions are being taken and it is perhaps this disconnect between what we know and what we are doing that is most worrying.

Take the work of the OSPAR Commission on marine litter for example. OSPAR, being the regional mechanism set up to protect the North-East Atlantic, has encouragingly taken measures to monitor the problem of marine litter and raise its profile. What has been lacking however, has been progressive measures to stop the growth in marine litter and ultimately prevent litter reaching the sea from ships and land-based sources.

Of course marine litter is not a simple problem to solve in that inputs come from multiple sources. However, in comparison to other environmental problems, such as the prevention of hazardous substances from entering the marine environment, for which OSPAR does have a strategy, the problem of multiple sources really is no different.

Indeed, in order to act on these sources, OSPAR does have a number of options available to it and during the panel discussion there were two interventions that are worth mentioning.

One suggestion was that a Regional Seas Action Plan on Marine Litter – as is the case in several other regions of the world – would be essential to bring about a concerted effort towards acting on all sources of marine litter. The second view gave a more immediate way forward as a panellist suggested that OSPAR could focus its efforts on at least one of the sources of marine litter.

This latter point is also one that is most opportune and is presented by a golden opportunity in the form of the IMO’s review of Annex V – concerning ship waste dumping. Here lies an opportunity for OSPAR and its contracting parties to support a position of ‘general prohibition’ concerning the dumping of waste, and to ultimately prevent all onboard materials from ending up in the sea. This might only be one source, but it is a significant one at that.

Time, however, is upon us. If OSPAR does intend to use its combined efforts to press for environmentally friendly shipping regulations, it will need to step up its work in order to be part of the IMO’s review procedure that is expected to culminate in amended regulations by around 2012. This won’t be agreed during the OSPAR Summit, but if it can quickly agree to such a strategy, then it might just demonstrate whether OSPAR does have the political will to go beyond monitoring and indeed take measures to help solve this persistent environmental problem.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Needed: Vigorous reform of fisheries policy

Reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) comes around roughly once a decade, and the latest reform cycle is now in full swing. EU Fisheries Ministers have met informally in Vigo, on 4-5 May, to be presented with the Commission’s summary of the public consultation in 2009 and with the orientations stemming from a large stakeholder conference in La Coruña, on 2-3 May.

The CFP’s glaring failures have been recognised by the Commission in its Green Paper, published in April 2009 as a catalyst to the reform process. The CFP has resulted in 88% of assessed European fish stocks being overfished, and 30% being outside safe biological limits – meaning that they are at risk of collapse. If fishing stopped altogether in 2010, more than a fifth of European fish stocks would not be replenished by 2015, according to research conducted last year at the University of Kiel.

In order to find solutions for this state of affairs, the stakeholder conference which preceded the informal Council addressed three issues which Seas At Risk and the OCEAN2012 coalition believe are among the key topics in the reform process.


Most problems regarding the CFP stem from governance failures. The CFP has long suffered from political haggling and short-termism, with measures of great intricacy being dealt with at the highest political level. Traditionally, national ministers have entangled themselves in debates about issues such as the size of nets and annual quotas. Now, following the Lisbon treaty, the political process also includes the European Parliament in most decisions related to fisheries management. More politicians are, in short, debating issues that do not require political leadership. Urgent technical measures become subject to protracted political discussion.

If European fisheries are to be sustainable, the future CFP must put in place a governance framework that differentiates between long-term (strategic) and operational (management) decisions, with decisions taken and implemented at the most appropriate level. The task of the Council and the Parliament should be to decide on the overarching principles and long-term objectives of the policy; detailed implementation should be left to the Commission or decentralised management bodies.

Access to and management of fish stocks

At present, the CFP allocates access to fish stocks based on the principle of ‘relative stability’, which means that access to stocks is allocated based on individual countries’ historical catches. This model needs to be replaced with one that gives preferential access to fishing resources to those operators who better contribute to the objectives of the CFP, by fishing in an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible manner. Sustainability criteria should also be applied when tackling the deep-rooted problem of fleet overcapacity: the most destructive vessels should be removed from the fleet first.

Small-scale and coastal fisheries

The so-called “small scale” sector represents about 80% of the number of EU vessels. But, in practice, the CFP has so far focused on the management of and support to the large scale sector, which secures most money, using these subsidies to modernise and fuel their fleets. By contrast, operators of small vessels receive the least EU money, and most of the subsidies they receive are for scrapping their vessels.
Small is not always beautiful, and artisanal and coastal fleets do cause some harm. This is, though, the part of the fishing industry that fishes most sustainably. Socially, too, it is the most important, providing 65% of the industry’s jobs (it provides 30% of the catch).

Looking at the numbers, the state of Europe’s fisheries can seem hopeless. But better management could allow fish stocks to revive and ease the economic plight of coastal communities. EU ministers must accept that the status quo is unsustainable. The reform of the CFP poses an opportunity not to be missed if Europeans want to have their fish... and eat them too.

By Vera Coelho

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Bluefin and the EU: a match not made in heaven

So, it’s been over a month since the CITES conference came to an end. For bluefin tuna lovers, not eaters, the conference was a great disappointment.

The inclusion of Atlantic bluefin tuna on Annex I to the Convention was rejected and European nations could not even vote in the final and most important stage of proceedings; a vote, that if it had been successful, would have effectively meant for a complete ban on trading of bluefin tuna, and would have given this highly prized species a chance to recover.

On the basis that scientific evidence made such a ban so self evident, it is important to reflect on why the European political system could not stand up for this endangered species.


At first, many were hopeful when the EU agreed on a common position supporting a ban of bluefin tuna trade shortly before the beginning of the CITES conference. However, there was also skepticism in that the EU position came with stringent conditions. In this, instead of supporting an immediate, complete, worldwide ban, the EU position only supported a ban of industrial fishing of bluefin tuna to come into effect sometime in the future, and only once it had been proven again that bluefin tuna is indeed on its way to extinction. Reading further into this, in essence the EU was indirectly trying to change the rules of the CITES game and indeed, before the meeting, it was perceived as highly questionable whether the conditional position would be acceptable under the terms of CITES.

The very outcome and failure of the CITES meeting to ban trade of bluefin tuna in many ways provides us with the answer to this political conundrum.


The weak EU position also raised questions about the benefit of having a common EU position at such meetings.
The EU is not a member of CITES, the individual member states are. With the common EU position, the 27 member states lost their right to promote their individual position on the listing and had to represent the common EU position. In a situation where a majority of member states would have supported a complete ban without conditions this would possibly have had a stronger persuasive effect on other CITES members than the weak EU position had.

Again, things are never as clear cut as they appear and this issue take us to the very foundation of the EU; the Lisbon Treaty.


Until the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009, fisheries were under the exclusive mandate of the EU. If the EU did not act, the matter remained unregulated and member states could not intervene. Since the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty, this is no longer the case.

Fisheries are now largely a shared competence, meaning that the EU shall only act when the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states but can be better achieved at EU level. In the absence of EU measures, member states may act individually.

However, to make things (even) less clear, not all fisheries matters are now a shared competence. Issues relating to the conservation of marine biological resources remain an exclusive competence of the EU but it has not been finally resolved yet, whether the inclusion of a species such as the bluefin tuna on Annex I would fall within the scope of this exception.

Whatever the outcome, the whole fiasco surrounding the call for a listing of bluefin tuna means the EU and its members states need not only to reflect on why, in the end, such a pitiful response was made, but also to evaluate what must be done when a similar situation is apparent. Let’s just hope that when that situation arises it is a positive outcome for a united European front, but also a positive one for bluefin and other species so desperately needing protection.

By Maja-Alexandra Dittel