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Sustainability

EU demand for fish exceeds sustainable supply

The European Union is the world's largest fish import market and to a high degree responsible for global overfishing. New regulations are aiming to change this, but it's not clear how they will be implemented.

The average German eats over 15 kilograms of fish per year. This adds up to four times the legal fishing quota in EU waters for Germany. April 6, 2014, is Fish Dependence Day in Germany - the day on which dependence on fish imports for the rest of the year begins, as catches would have run out if only home-caught fish had been eaten since January 1. Germany relies on imports for over eight months per year to satisfy domestic demand for fish products.

Fish Dependence Day falls on a different date in every EU country - a date determined by the UK-based New Economics Foundation. This year, it will take place on April 13th in Italy and on May 1st in Portugal, where the average resident consumes 61 kilograms of fish per year. For the EU as a whole, it will be on July 11th, as nearly half of all fish eaten in the EU originates from external waters.

Decades of excessive fishing

Europe is entirely to blame for this situation, according to Nina Wolff from Ocean2012, an alliance of organizations dedicated to transforming the European Fisheries Policy.

Atlantic cod in the sea
(Photo: by-nc-sa/Joachim S. Müller)

Many fish populations are under serious threat

"Indeed, much of European fish stock is in a bad state due to decades of overfishing, and it can't ensure optimal productivity," said Wolff. "In this way, one can view Fish Dependence Day as a warning signal or a serious appeal for prompt regeneration of our fish stock."

Environmental organizations Greenpeace and WWF recommend that consumers abstain from buying eel, mackerel, ocean perch, angler, bass and North Sea cod. The organizations emphasize that 30 percent of the world's seas are classified as overfished, and WWF has compiled a list of 101 mostly imported fish species that should be avoided by consumers. Instead, it recommends the North Sea herring and sprat and cod caught in the Baltic Sea, as well as European carp and catfish.

Increasing sustainability

The greater goal behind Fish Dependence Day is having it fall on increasingly later dates as the years go by. According to Ursula Hudson from Slow Food Germany, if all 150 species of edible fish in the northeastern Atlantic were farmed in a sustainable manner, Fish Dependence Day would fall on October 4. Together with Ocean2012 and German development agency Bread for the World, Slow Food is calling on the German government to adhere to the EU's reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which as been in force since January 2014.

Implementing the CFP is in line with the German government's course, according to Ursula Flachsbarth, parliamentary state secretary in the German ministry of agriculture. She pointed out that Germany was one of the driving forces behind the regulations.

"The sustainability principle is behind our new policies, connected to the principle of maximum sustainable yield," said Flachsbarth, explaining that this means fishing in a way that allows fish populations to regenerate. The goal is to have this principle applied to all fishing in EU waters by 2020.

Protection for developing countries

Angolan fishermen drop off their haul at a fish market
(Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Small-scale African fishers have to compete with European trawlers

The new regulations include a discard ban aimed at reducing by-catch volumes. EU fishers are also required to adhere to the rules when in foreign territory. Until now, European fishing in African waters has been depriving locals of an important source of protein.

"The EU needs to drastically reduce its global fishing activities," commented Francisco Mari from Bread for the World. "Fishing agreements with developing countries should only apply to surplus stock in certain fish populations, and the fish should be processed in these countries to create jobs."

He pointed out that 90 percent of fish caught off Namibia's coast is transported to Europe. This leaves Namibia with little more than by-catch. "There are no general regulations there - only private licenses that nobody controls," said Mari. "Not only all European ships need to obey the EU rules, but also everything that is supported by European capital."

For this reason Mari said he supports the recent blacklisting of Guinea, Belize and Cambodia by the European regulatory body for fishing. These three countries have been accused of illegal and unregulated fishing practices. As a result, no EU member state may import fish products from those countries and EU fishing activity is banned in their waters.

Despite these limitations, some of the banned fish still finds its way to Europe. For years now, fish caught in Guinean waters mostly by Chinese and Korean trawlers have been illegally transferred to European ships on the high seas.

"We can't continue having fish in our shops if we don't ensure that countries in the south are able to control fishing in their territories," said Mari. "Even if these countries receive patrol boats as presents from wealthier countries every now and then, at the moment they don't have the necessary funds for fuel to operate them."

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