Improving EU fisheries controls

EM6 20 Fish EFCAA Sisyphean task for fisheries management

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 6 / 2020.

Compliance with fishing quotas and implementation of fisheries regulations requires constant monitoring and control and it was to this end that the Community Fisheries Control Agency was set up as the supreme authority in the EU. Although it is relatively small the agency has to carry out a wide range of tasks. Despite its numerous achievements there seems to be no end to the criticism raining down on the group with regard to the effectiveness of the controls. Why do a lot of things work better in Norway or Iceland?

The last reform of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in January 2014 might not have intended to change everything but it did hope to do a lot of things better. Europe wanted to make its fisheries more environmentally friendly and more economically and socially sustainable in the long term. Fish stocks were to be exploited sustainably and overfishing was to be prevented in order to offer all fishermen equal opportunities within fair competition and ensure lasting economic prospects. Because efficient controls at national and regional level are essential to achieve these goals EU member countries were given more responsibility for controls. It is a known fact that there are still a number of shortcomings in this area. Already in 2002 the EU member states had agreed to set up a Community Fisheries Control Agency with the aim of developing "a culture of compliance within the fisheries sector" throughout Europe. When the newly established agency began its work in Vigo, Spain, in April 2005 on the basis of Regulation (EC) No 768/2005, expectations were at least as high as the tasks it was given.

High priority was given to the task of organising coordination and cooperation between national control and inspection activities so that all Common Fisheries Policy rules were respected and properly applied. This is of course essential if equal competition is to exist throughout the European fisheries sector. All fishermen and other operators in the sector, regardless of the EU Member State in which they operate, have to follow and be treated according to the same rules. This does not always seem to have been the case in EU waters. “Outside” fishermen often complained that they were subject to much stricter controls than their local counterparts, and some even felt that they were discriminated against… despite the fact that competition is only fair if everyone is subject to the same rules. And naturally that includes controls to ensure that fishermen comply with all the regulations and catch quotas that are essential for the long-term conservation of fish stocks and sustainable fishing.

This is why control, inspection and enforcement of the rules is also an important part of the Common Fisheries Policy whose effectiveness is crucial to the success of many sustainability efforts. And because this is so, work has long been underway to improve and make this area more effective. But controls, whether on land or at sea, require qualified staff, vessels, complex technology, and a lot of time and so they are accordingly expensive. That is why individual member states are scaling down their control measures with the result that they no longer carry out controls consistently, across the board and with a high frequency. This is probably also why the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) was founded. Although the actual control of fisheries activities will remain the national responsibility of the EU member states, the EFCA will support their activities and coordinate deployment plans, organise joint projects in European and international waters, help train instructors and inspectors, and much more besides. All, of course, with the highest possible level of expertise and transparency to build trust and motivate all parties to work together honestly and fairly, which is essential to fulfil the demanding tasks and carry out effective, efficient controls.

Insufficient digitisation makes work more difficult

This wealth of tasks is certainly legion for an agency which, with only 72 staff members (as of June 2019) – three quarters of whom are on temporary contracts – can be described as “small”. As is often the case in the EU, under the pressure of unsatisfactory conditions, a solution was devised which met the requirements formally, but had neither the competences – from an institutional point of view, the EU Commission is not permitted to perform tasks on behalf of the member states – nor sufficient resources to fully meet all the technical, scientific and administrative tasks specific to fisheries. How can the few EFCA staff members "reconcile" the diverse and sometimes divergent conditions and requirements of more than two dozen member states that are necessary for "uniform conditions in fisheries throughout Europe"? The EU is well-known for its endless discussions, artfully balanced compromises and special national approaches. But how can a resolution hope to seriously prevent a fisheries inspector from turning a blind eye to the fisherman who lives next door to him while imposing a heavy fine on foreign fishermen for similar infringements?

As if that were not enough work, the EFCA is also involved in projects related to new technologies such as remote electronic monitoring (REM) of fishing fleets and the fisheries information system "Fishnet" which is used to collect and share data between cooperating member states. This is a modular web-based tool which provides a virtual office-like environment and supports the transmission of information. The EFCA's electronic recording and reporting system collects key data on fishing positions, catches and gear that are sent from the fishing vessels at sea via the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) to their flag Member State and from there to Vigo via the European Commission's "Data Exchange Highway" (DEH). These data packets are complemented by other information sent by the fishing vessels to Regional Fisheries Organisations such as NAFO and NEAFC or the Atlantic Tuna Commission (ICCAT) which then transmit it to the EFCA.

All these activities result in a highly complex, mosaic-like picture of the fleets’ fishing activities. It’s virtually possible to find out in real time what fishermen are doing from the moment they leave port until they return: what fishing gear they use, how much and what they catch in which areas, the size of the fish and what species they have on board. They must also report when and where they land and what they unload in any port. This information enables fisheries inspectors to make much more informed and targeted decisions on which vessels to inspect and how often. Since 2014, the results of inspection reports can be fed into the EFCA’s Electronic Inspection Report system (EIR), which should further increase transparency between member states. In addition, the EFCA coordinates joint activities in the field of fisheries controls and supports international inspection programmes to ensure the monitoring of remote areas on the high seas. This has led to encouraging results in recent years, as the current situation in EU waters shows, where 62 out of 78 scientifically assessed stocks already meet the targets for sustainable exploitation. Their stock biomass has almost doubled since 2003. This is a step in the right direction even if not all problems have been solved… as can be seen from the critical state of the Mediterranean and Black Sea where sustainability goals are still a long way off. However, this is not the sole responsibility of the EU member states since many other states are also involved in fisheries there.

Primacy of national interests still prevails

Although the EFCA also supports the European Commission in its relations with third countries this is mainly in relation to the implementation and control of the IUU Regulation. The fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a key priority of EU fisheries policy and thus one of the most urgent obligations for the EFCA which organises specific training to help member states meet their obligations under the IUU Regulation, provides technical assistance, promotes the exchange of experience, and creates a network to improve cooperation in this field. In order to curb and combat IUU fishing it also aims to improve and make more reliable the collection of fisheries data and fill gaps within the system. A wide range of data that is collected along the fisheries and aquaculture products supply chain is stored here: electronic data from all fishing vessels, digitised reports of catches and fishery products, often already obtained using new weighing techniques. Also included are imported goods whose origin must be fully traceable. Even the catches of recreational fishermen are to be increasingly registered.

However, despite numerous efforts and improvements, there is still criticism. It has been claimed, for example, that some fisheries control projects are merely declarations of intent, and that their actual implementation is too slow, cumbersome, and inconsistent. National narrow-mindedness and jealousy on the part of the member states often make it difficult to take quick decisions, and instead of clear, unambiguous resolutions, bureaucracy triumphs. Sometimes the people working in the fisheries sector hardly know what is currently valid or what has to be complied with in the maze of ever new requirements and demands. In addition to national and EU legislation, there are also calls from some nature conservation and industry associations for their interests to be asserted. Some of them are asking for greater protection of seabirds and marine mammals, others want to see protected marine zones established in large areas of the sea with fishing bans imposed there. High-yield fishing areas are shrinking more and more, especially near the coast, because wind power and power cables, gravel dredging and dumping are taking up more and more space. Protests from the fishing sector usually go unheard, with fishermen feeling particularly bitter that the principle of equal treatment in the enforcement of existing laws does not seem to apply to some of them. For example, as a German fishermen's representative explains, he has to pay a fine for a coffee filter thrown into the sea, while Greenpeace is allowed to sink large boulders off the coast without permission – allegedly to prevent fishing there – without the legislator putting a stop to this illegal activity.

The very title of the report by the European Court of Auditors, which evaluated the amended fisheries control regulation in 2017, suggests there are deficits: "EU fisheries controls: more efforts needed". While progress had been made since the 2007 reform of the Control Regulation the auditors found that there were still a number of weaknesses. The control system was not sufficiently effective and not all member states had fully implemented the requirements of the EU Control Regulation. The Court of Auditors therefore made several suggestions for improvement, pointing in particular to the insufficient access to data during land and sea inspections, control of landing obligations and inconsistent sanctions for infringements of CFP measures. In response, the European Commission proposed further improvements in 2018 to adapt and simplify the monitoring of fisheries rules to current conditions. In fact, the new objectives are still the same as the old ones: to make the control system more effective, modern, easier and efficient in order to promote sustainable management of fish stocks. The EFCA mandate would be revised and its control powers extended. The announcement that the EU Commission intends to tighten up its controls on member states' compliance with CFP rules is particularly controversial. This is nothing new, but now anyone who fails to comply with the rules, exceeds fishing effort or quotas is threatened with the cancellation, reduction or suspension of financial aid, and possible cutting of future quota allocations. In the event of serious infringements this is also to be possible as an emergency measure.

Greater involvement of fishermen needed

What is probably unlikely to happen in the EU, despite such declarations of intent, has long been reality in Iceland and Norway. Both Nordic countries are regarded as exemplary in terms of sustainable fisheries and rigorous control of fishing activities. This was not always the case there either, but in the meantime they have done their homework, so to speak, and have completely reorganised and streamlined the system, with the result that it is now more efficient. Of course, the starting conditions for implementing strict controls are much more favourable in a single country than in a large community of states like the EU where the needs and sensitivities of all members must be taken into account. But making and implementing the necessary changes in fisheries in Iceland and Norway was not easy either… far from it. Incapacity in the commercial fishing fleet had to be reduced. Subsidies for fisheries were abolished, fishing quotas were strictly based on scientific advice, and the control system was modified to make it virtually impossible to undermine it. It was a painful process that made fishing much more profitable, but cost many fishermen their jobs.

Comparison with the EU reveals two significant differences. In both Iceland and Norway fishing is of great economic importance and enjoys a much higher reputation than in most EU countries. Fishery resources are valued as national wealth in both Nordic countries and the political influence of their national fisheries ministries is considerable. A second striking difference is that controls in Iceland and Norway are much better digitised than in the EU, where there is a need to catch up. Since 2000, fishing vessels over 24 metres in length (15 metres for EU vessels) in Norwegian waters have been required to carry satellite transponders in order to monitor activities 24 hours a day, all the year round. Combined with electronic logbooks this provides unique possibilities for fisheries management to monitor fishing activities. If the proportion of undersized fish in the catch exceeds a certain level fishing grounds can be closed for days, weeks or months in almost real time. Digitised data also allows multiple inspections at sea, in port, at auctions held by sales organisations, and during export, making fraud much more difficult. Heavy penalties for infringements, including withdrawal of licences and the introduction of blacklists of vessels infringing IUU rules, act as a deterrent.

Iceland's fisheries management control system is similarly rigorous. The high level of digitisation allows synchronised, real-time weight checks in all registered landing ports. This data is transmitted live to a database, allowing cross-checks by the coast guard, food and veterinary authorities, certified port officials, processing plants and export companies. Modern, advanced, complex and quality-oriented: these words are a fairly accurate description of the Icelandic control system.

The decisive factor for improvements in fisheries and the effectiveness of control measures is and will remain the people involved. As long as fishermen in the EU are not treated equally and fairly and as long as they perceive discrimination and insufficient justification of the need for quota cuts or the requirement to bring the entire catch to shore it will be difficult to solve many of the problems. Fishermen must be motivated to cooperate, they have to be involved in the problem-solving process. Who can have more interest in sustainable fisheries than those whose economic future depends on long-term resource security? If fishermen acted on their own initiative to protect resources it would even be possible to do without some of the costly monitoring effort with cameras on board, satellite surveillance, electronic logbooks and accompanying inspectors. Or is the Icelandic fisherman right who resignedly remarked: "There’ll never be peace in the fisheries sector because there’s not enough for everybody"