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Unsustainable EU fishing?

Dave KeatingJune 15, 2016

A 2013 reform was supposed to end an absurd situation where fishermen were dumping perfectly good fish back into the sea, dead. But it's not going entirely to plan.

Barentssee Fang von Kabeljau
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Mochet

In the summer of 2013, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his rogue band of "fish fighters" were celebrating victory in the halls of the European Parliament in Brussels.

After a two-year campaign, they had pressured lawmakers into ending a fisheries management policy that was forcing fishermen to dump dead fish overboard when their catch breached their European Union quotas.

But three years later, sustainable fishing campaigners say national EU governments are ignoring the requirements of the reforms.

An annual report issued today by the European Commission on fishing opportunities for the coming years suggests that although a new ban on discarding fish is being enforced by national fishing authorities, governments are ignoring requirements to stop setting politically determined maximum catch levels and instead listen to scientific advice.

Fish Fight Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall
British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall set out to reform EU fishing policy after seeing its impactsImage: Channel 4 Television UK

"The reform agreed in 2013 said fish quotas should be set at maximum sustainable yield [MSY, the scientifically-determined healthy level of a population] by 2015, if possible, or 2020 at the latest," says Liane Veitch, a scientist with campaign group ClientEarth. "Well it is possible, in almost every stock. But the national governments are delaying and delaying."

Perverse effects

The EU's Common Fisheries Policy was set up in 1970 to manage Europe's fish stocks and make sure certain species aren't fished to extinction. Every year, fisheries ministers from each EU member country meet in December to determine which countries can catch what amounts of each type of fish.

But campaigners and fishermen alike say this has had a perverse effect. The fishermen could catch however many fish they liked, but they could only drop off an amount at harbor that was below the EU limits. The excess - fish that was caught, and then died - was dumped overboard before they landed.

And over the years, the annual summit of fisheries ministers is accused of turning into a haggling session. Favors were swapped, deals were struck, and in the end the fishing limits bore little resemblence to the recomendations made by scientists, critics say. Quotes were instead determined by politics, meaning some levels were too low and others too high.

Fearnley-Whittingstall took up the cause after seeing for himself the masses of fish that were being dumped into the ocean due to the illogical EU rules. He convinced Maria Damanaki, at the time the EU Commissioner for fisheries, to propose a drastic reform in 2011 that would ban discards.

As much as 50 percent of fishing catch in the North Sea was thrown overboard dead, according to the campaign.

Fishermen in Sicily
The report expressed special concern over Mediterranean stocks, which are being fished "considerably above" MSY targetsImage: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online

In a bid to end the annual haggling, the reform also required levels to be set at scientifically-determined MSY amounts. Despite resistance from nations with strong fishing industries like Spain, France and the UK, the reform passed.

Observers credited this to the ferocity of Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign, which bombarded the fisheries ministers with tweets and emails, and took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers to shame them into accepting the reform.

Continued haggling

But the Commission's current report, and an analysis by ClientEarth, shows that while national governments are keeping their word on enforcing the discard ban, they are moving slowly on setting limits at scientific levels - and continue the haggling.

In December of last year, the ministers set 2016 quotas higher than MSY for 34 stocks - a majority - and did not provide justification for why the scientific advice couldn't be followed.

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, rejected the accusations in an interview with DW: "Rest assured that all quotas are set on the best available scientific advice."

According to ClientEarth's analysis of the commission data, three-quarters of stocks are still not set at MSY levels. All of these stocks should be set at MSY by 2020 under the legal deadline. But Veitch says at this rate, it seems doubtful the EU can meet this deadline.

Captive bluefin tuna inside a transport cage
Levels of tuna catch in the Mediterranean are set through a total allowable catch mechanismImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The fishing industry has been lobbying the governments in light of the discard ban, saying they shouldn't be lowering quotas, Veitch told DW. "The slow progress means more serious cuts are going to be needed before 2020."

Vella provided a different perspective. "We have more stocks at MSY level now than we did five years ago. So we have made a lot of progress already, and hopefully we will continue to make progress up to 2020."

Fishermen need more time

However Europêche, the industry association representing the fishing industry in Brussels, disagrees with this characterisation. Kathryn Stack, the association's managing director, told members of the European Parliament at a hearing last montht that the discard ban is causing economc hardship, and that now is not the time to be rushing into lowering quotas.

"We have a situation where the quota allocation fails to deal with the complexity of mixed fisheries," she said. "Fish will remain uncaught, reducing food supply and vessels will either be tied up or have already gone bankrupt."

As the 2020 deadline looms, the two sides are likely to continue to battle over how to set fishing levels. But the recent data indicates that despite the 2013 reform, progress in preserving EU fisheries is not moving as fast as some had hoped.