Fishermen get stronger voice in fishery-related decisions

The long years of tenacious struggle over the reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy came to a successful end when it was officially adopted after the European Parliament’s plenary session gave its full support in December last year. It is to usher in a fundamental change in Europe’s fisheries policy, prevent overexploitation of the seas, and make sustainability a basic principle in fisheries.

CFP reform was a very tough job. For more than two years the involved parties proposed and rejected, balanced, criticised and discussed, argued vehemently and searched for acceptable compromises. Although the result does not satisfy some critical observers of the reform process in all points, and numerous ambitious proposals of the European Parliament were not taken into account the reform still marks a turning point in European fisheries, an end to the annual horse-trading in Brussels during which the circle of Member States Fisheries Ministers set arbitrary fishing quotas in hurried meetings, quotas that were mostly above the recommendations made by fisheries scientists. This unfortunate practice should now have come to an end, the overexploitation of the seas is to be curbed, and sustainability is to become the determining principle. Europe’s fishery is to be regulated so as to enable long-term stabilisation of stocks or, where possible, even stock growth. In evening and even night-long sessions the “trilogue” – the negotiators of the EU Parliament, Council and Commission – argued over the wording and struggled with concrete specifications right up to the last minute. After all, it was elementary issues that were at stake: for example, the orientation of fisheries management to the MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield) principle, a discard ban, regionalisation of numerous detailed fishing issues, and more focused management of fleet capacity.

When it came to the basic objectives of fisheries policy Europe’s politicians were really always in agreement even before the reform. No one has ever seriously disputed the fact that it was necessary to put a stop to overfishing and make fishing ecological, economical and socially sustainable. However, there was a huge gap between the grandiose announcements and their practical implementation, which ultimately led to a large number of fish stocks in EU waters being overfished and some fishing fleets only being able to survive with the help of massive subsidies. The CFP reform is now to put an end to this waste of resources and so it is not surprising that Maria Damanaki, the EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, welcomed the agreement reached as a historic step for all those employed in the fields of fisheries and aquaculture. With this reform the EU was laying down the basis for a sustainable fisheries industry. Fishing opportunities would be strictly geared to scientific advice, fish stocks would be rebuilt to sustainable levels, and discards of unintentionally caught fishes would be prohibited.

The reform of CFP is to put an end to overfishing by the year 2015. Some fisheries are being granted longer transition periods, however.

Gesine Meißner, the fisheries policy spokeswoman for the Liberal group within the European Parliament, judged the outcome of the trilogue negotiations much more soberly. The agreement reached was welcome but it was not the really big reform. Since Parliament gave its fisheries committee a mandate for the negotiations, the Member States had tried to dilute and undermine Parliament’s ambitious reform proposals. The result thus had to be viewed pragmatically: “Better this reform than none at all.”


Catch quotas strictly geared to scientific recommendations

The reform brings serious changes in five key areas of the Common Fisheries Policy. The first and perhaps most important change concerns the fixing of maximum catches. These are in future to be strictly geared to scientific criteria and should follow the recommendations of fisheries scientists. The past few years have shown that the consistent implementation of this principle can prove successful and pays off: many stocks had recovered significantly even before the reform was in force at all. According to a statement by the EU Commission, 95% of the stocks in EU waters were considered to be overfished In 2005, but by 2012 this share had fallen to 39%. Reliable, scientifically based fishing quotas are a basic prerequisite for healthy fish stocks upon which a profitable and economically rewarding fishery can be built. The reform of the Common Fisheries Policy should put an end to the overfishing of stocks by the year 2015. Some fisheries will, however, be granted longer transition periods so as not to endanger or overburden the social and economic sustainability of the fleets. But by 2020 at the latest all fish stocks are to be fished according to the MSY principle which guarantees maximum sustainable yield. Critics of this compromise (which was presumably unavoidable in order to get all Member States to agree to the reform) complain that the reduction of fishing pressure is taking too long. They also complain that the reform paper names no concrete date by which fish stocks are to have recovered.

The second important change concerns the handling of the by-catch and discards. The overexploitation and senseless destruction of valuable resources had been particularly strongly criticised by a very large number of people in the run-up to the reform. The discard practice was denounced again and again, and EU politicians were forced to realise that the public would measure the success of the reform on whether an end had been put to this senseless waste. After all, it is estimated that in the past nearly one quarter of all caught fishes were unwanted by-catches and that the greater part of this unintended catch was thrown back into the sea. But the discard problem is very complex and so it was particularly contentiously argued. There was disagreement, for example, in the question as to how a discard ban could be enforced and monitored in practice. Perhaps that explains why the result was only one of those “soft” European agreements that sound very rigorous but that, when it comes to details, make numerous concessions and allow exceptions. The ambitious proposals of the European Parliament on this issue were only partially enforceable during the negotiations.

Up to now, fishermen have been obliged to throw all the fishes back into the sea that exceeded their fishing quota. In future, unintentional by-catches will have to be landed, however, and taken into account in the quota. It is hoped that this will create incentives for more selective fishing. Critics doubt this intended effect of the reform, however, because special regulations and exceptions that can hardly be monitored at sea leave too many loopholes open. For that reason, some people speak not of a discard ban but of discard limitation. And they also complain that the discard ban is only being introduced gradually in European waters with a ban on pelagics discards from 2015 and on other species from 2016. Species for which there are no catch restrictions and in which there is only little commercial interest can still be discarded at will without restrictions and thus wasted. To really achieve a more selective fishery discards should have been completely banned.

CFP reform gives fishermen as the main players a central role in many local decision-making processes.


Less centralism, more regional responsibility

The third important change to be addressed by CFP reform is the regionalisation of some fisheries decisions which can be better assessed locally than in Brussels. Commissioner Damanaki seeks closer cooperation with the regional authorities and stakeholders for finding specific, tailor-made solutions. Typical topics for regional decisions could, for example, be the designation and protection of biologically sensitive marine regions, such as the spawning grounds or nursery areas of juvenile fishes. Many details required for the regulation of local fisheries can be better negotiated at regional level. If this point of the reform is actually implemented to the letter it could thus be that for the fisheries off the coasts of Galicia different rules might soon apply than for the fisheries in the Irish Sea or the German Bight. In this aspect it would seem that the CFP does not only change some of the rules in the fisheries sector but also in politics as a whole, for the regionalisation of competences and responsibility represents a significant departure from all previous procedure which was geared to centralisation of tasks in Brussels. A completely new aspect of the reformed fisheries policy is also that the fishermen, as key players, take on an important role in many decision-making processes. They are to be more strongly involved than before in the development of technical measures for the protection of the environment as well as young or endangered fish stocks. Apart from that, their knowledge and experience were to be used to support decentralised fisheries management which takes regional conditions and circumstances into consideration.

A theme that touches regionalisation and sustainable management equally is the individual multiannual management plans that are to be the central element of fisheries management. These plans would enable more effective protection of the stocks and will give fishing enterprises greater certainty when planning for a foreseeable period.

The fourth big topic complex of the reform deals with subsidies for the fishing industry. Although the community had set ambitious targets for the reduction of the fishing fleet the construction of new vessels had continued to be subsidised in the past, often “disguised” by the applicants as replacement or modernisation measures. This should no longer be possible since subsidies for the building of new ships will not be granted. Instead, more money is to be provided for the monitoring of fishing activities and stocks. Critics say the whole package is a sham because it doesn’t mean less subsidies but just that they will be distributed differently. The criticism of subsidies for fuel costs is particularly fierce because it is mainly large fishing vessels that benefit here and it is those vessels that cause disproportionate damage to fish stocks and the ecosystem.

Just how seriously people are taking the reform in Brussels could be seen in the decision-making session on 28 January 2014 when a political agreement between the EU Parliament and the Council reduced the allocation of shipbuilding subsidies in the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) and instead provided more money for data collection and artisanal fisheries and small aquaculture plants. Apart from that, fishermen whose activities will have to be restricted for management reasons aimed at stock replenishment will receive financial aid.

The outcome of the reform will partly depend on how serious and how determined the Member States are in its implementation.


Reform provides an opportunity for far-reaching change in the EU fishery

New, stricter rules are also to apply to those EU fishing vessels that fish outside of European waters in other parts of the world. This fifth big topic block of the reform stipulates that Europeans are only allowed to use healthy fish stocks, or surplus stocks as they are also called. This is to help put an end to overfishing in the waters of developing countries. Beyond that, the same rules shall apply to European fishermen in foreign fishing grounds as in their own local waters. Rebecca Harms, the President of the Greens in the European Parliament, thus sees the reform as a “major breakthrough on this issue”. It constituted a good basis for making the transition to a sustainable, environmentally friendly fishing industry in Europe.

Although the state of European fish stocks is still not satisfactory there is certainly cause for cautious optimism. In the Northeast Atlantic and adjacent areas 16 of 41 stocks were overfished in 2012. In the Mediterranean and the Black Sea 75 of 85 stocks are said to be overfished. Although it will take some time until the fishery reform’s new regulations take effect positive trends in stock development are already visible in some marine regions and these are likely to improve further in the coming years leading potentially to higher quotas.

However, sustainable fishing does not mean that the fishing quotas always only change in an upward direction. Since fishing quotas follow stock developments they sometimes have to be reduced when year classes are weak. This simple correlation is the reason behind the quota proposals of the European Commission for the North Atlantic, the North Sea and international waters for the present year. In accordance with the quota recommendations of fisheries scientists the Commission proposes maintaining or increasing the catch volumes of 36 stocks that are fished by EU states alone. The total allowable catch of 36 further species should, in contrast, be reduced. Twenty-two of these 72 stocks are already managed according to MSY principles.

Supporting the reformed CFP is the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which will be used to reduce the impact of fisheries on the marine environment, support the rebuilding of fish stocks, and the gradual elimination of discards, among other measures. The fund will also be used to attract new blood to the fisheries sector and to support measures that benefit the small-scale fishing fleets. It will also support the European aquaculture sector, an area which has been stagnating for years. The EMFF will work for the sustainability of EU fish stocks by funding data collection that will allow decisions to be based on science, as well as supporting control and monitoring programmes.
As an integral part of the CFP the common organisation of the market for fisheries and aquaculture products (CMO) was also adapted to the reform of the CFP. The new market policy aims to strengthen competitiveness of EU industry, create a level playing field for all seafood marketed in the EU and increase transparency. There will be new marketing standards on labelling, quality, and traceability leading to better informed consumers who can actively support the sustainability of fisheries. Producer organisations will have a stronger role to play in collective management, monitoring, and ensuring the stability of the market.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy has been in force since January 2014. It is designed to allow fish stocks to regenerate and at the same time help safeguard and protect the livelihoods of fishermen and other people who are dependent on fishing. Whether the reform will actually bring about these effects will partly depend on how serious and how determined the Member States are in its implementation. It would not be the first reform in the EU to be addressed initially with great vigour only to be submerged by bureaucracy and everyday work later on. The fishermen will measure the reform’s success on how uniformly violations of its requirements are detected and punished in the individual European countries. However wise regionalisation might be for managing the fishery, when it comes to punishing infringements it would be misplaced. Here it will be necessary to act uniformly in all European countries. The current reform of CFP is more than the frequently quoted by-catch ban. It creates ideal conditions to make fishing truly sustainable, to make the market more transparent and more competitive, and to involve the fishermen much more strongly than ever before in fisheries-related decision-making processes. We can’t afford to waste these opportunities!