How did we get from following scientific advice to seahorse-trading of fishing opportunities?

The European Commission’s Communication on Fishing Opportunities for 2019 (1), published on 11 June, over-emphasises progress on improving EU fisheries’ health, while demonstrating a marked lack of ambition. The Commission should be at the vanguard when it comes to implementing the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP); pushing member states to fulfil their commitment. The Commission should ignore the pressure from a few in order to achieve the long-term benefits for all, because our fisheries and seas belong to every EU citizen – not just those who want to overexploit them.

In 2013, EU member states committed to ending overfishing by 2020 at the latest. In their Communication, the Commission claims progress in doing this, but fails to note that it is not enough to meet that deadline. Maximum sustainable yield (MSY) – the point at which fish stocks are able to reproduce at a consistent level, whilst allowing for regular catch rates – is the foundation of the reformed CFP. It promises to end decades of overfishing, and in return provide better catch rates for fishers > a win-win.

But MSY is a limit, based on nature’s capacity. If the limit is exceeded, fish stocks will struggle to maintain themselves, let alone recover. Overexploited fish stocks diminish fishing opportunities and hence viability of fishing, and the EU has been over-exploiting fish stocks for decades.

Fishing limits, Total Annual Catches (TACs), should ideally be set under MSY – would you walk right on a cliff edge? Ending overfishing means changing how things are done – making difficult decisions now, in order to deliver greater benefits in the medium-term. This is the experience of numerous fisheries around the world.  So why is the Commission and member states finding it so hard – it’s a no-brainer.

The Commission talks about setting fishing limits for shared stocks with other coastal states like Norway as though sustainable limits are optional – they are not. These stocks must meet the same MSY obligation as domestic EU stocks – ‘trying to advance the MSY objective’ is not good enough. It must be met … just do it.

In the next six months, there will be a number of key moments when the Commission and member states can demonstrate how committed they are to delivering the healthy fisheries that were promised in 2013.

The Commission will propose fishing limits for stocks in the Baltic Sea and Deep Sea in September, and then they will be negotiated by ministers at the Agrifish Council in October and November respectively. The Commission will then propose fishing limits for North Sea and Atlantic stocks, which will be decided in December – the annual late night pantomime, performed behind closed doors and where every minister is a national star. These will be Karmenu Vella’s last Agrifish Council meetings as Commissioner, when fishing limits are set. So he has the chance to make history in overseeing an end to overfishing, or not…

(1) COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL on the State of Play of the Common Fisheries Policy and Consultation on the Fishing Opportunities for 2019. COM(2018) 452 final.