Large parts of the world's waters are overfished and the EU Parliament wants to change that with new quotas for specific types of fish. On Wednesday (06.02.2013), it voted to curb overfishing.
Germans like to eat Alaska pollock filet. And they also like herring and tuna, too. Every year, the average German eats around 15 kilograms (33 lbs.) of fish, according to a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). But, what is often deemed healthy, is under threat – 47 percent of the stocks in the Atlantic are overfished, and the figure for Mediterranean stocks is around 90 percent.
The consequences are dramatic, Thilo Maack, a fisheries expert at the environmental protection organization Greenpeace, told DW. Increasingly, Europe is importing fish from distant areas, like the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. That destroys the whole ecosystem. If EU ships are also fishing in non-European, even African, waters and exporting to countries there, that could destroy African markets.
40 percent of the fish thrown back into the water
The EU's latest proposal hopes to end overfishing. The European Parliament in Strasbourg decided to reduce fishing quotas on Wednesday (02.06.2013). The quotas for the fish will be determined by scientific finding on their current stocks. Discarding of the catch is supposed to be gradually reduced in the coming years and will be completely from 2017. So far, some 40 percent of fish that is caught is thrown back into the sea to avoid exceeding quotas. "Unwanted" fish and marine animals that are considered worthless are thrown back into the water - many are already dead.
"This is a big victory in the fight against overfishing and an extraordinarily important step to sustainable EU fisheries," said Thilo Mack. A reasonable catch quota and a ban on throwing unwanted fish back in the water would help threatened fish stocks, like the ones in the North Sea to recover. he added.
More research for improved nets needed
Thilo Maack is depending on further research in fisheries that could help prevent catching unwanted fish or other marine animals.
"An alternative to lower the by-catch and to end it at some point are modified nets, which do not smother the fish," he said.
The unwanted fish can then be thrown back into the water after sorting on board. Maack knows of cases where there's a 12 kilogram by-catch for one kilogram of North Sea sole.
"And it's also right that fishermen are forced to develop other methods of fishing because of the ban," he said.
Fisheries association welcomes the regulation
A whole industry is affected by the EU Parliament's proposed changes. Around 84,000 EU ships are at sea. And some 1,600 are from Germany, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. The sector accounts for 40,000 jobs. The German Fisheries Association (DFV) welcomes the changes.
"The first goal will be to prevent by-catches in general. And in the water, not when it is already in the net," DFV's media officer, Claus Ubl, told DW.
He is also depending on a further development of nets. There are already many fishing fleets with a low by-catch - such as those pursuing school fish, like herring and mackerel. The by-catch here is less than one percent.
"There are still problems in mixed fisheries because they fish just above the sea bottom," he said. But Claus Ubl believes that Europe is generally on the right track. "In 2007, the EU was speaking of 94 percent of the stocks being overfished. Last year, that figure had gone down to 47 percent," he said.
Political struggle expected
Most of all, Greenpeace's Maack is hoping that the reform brings about a change in how people think.
"What we ultimately want is a paradigm shift in the fishing industry. We want fishing that is on a small scale and regional, where the fish is caught off the coast of Schleswig-Holstein and is also marketed in Schleswig-Holstein," he said, referring to the northern German state bordering the North Sea. Businesses conducting sustainable fishing have the largest profit.
But before any fundamental changes can take place, the EU Council of Ministers has to approve the new fisheries regulations. A fierce fight is expected because there are EU countries, like Spain and Portugal, that believe that the EU Commission and Parliament have gone too far.