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

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