European fisheries chief hopes phasing out 'discarding' and agreeing plans with member states will preserve Europe's fish stocks
The biggest shake-up of European fisheries regulation in four decades was unveiled on Wednesday in Brussels, intended to preserve dwindlingfish stocks.
Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries chief, told policymakers in Brusselsthat strong and urgent action was needed if stocks were not to face collapse. She said: "Action is needed now to get all our fish stocks back into a healthy state to preserve them for present and future generations. Only under this precondition can fishermen continue to fish and earn a decent living out of their activities."
The central plank of her radical proposals is an attempt to ensure all European fish stocks are "at sustainable levels" by 2015 – a difficult task, as most stocks in the region are already overfished. She aims to achieve this by phasing out the wasteful practice of discarding healthy fish at sea – a perverse consequence of the current fishing quota systems – and agreeing with member states' long-term management plans for their stocks, but giving the states the freedom to decide how to implement those policies.
She is also likely to face opposition, as the reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – the roots of which date back to the Treaty of Rome of 1957 at the founding of the European Union – will mean short-term pain for fishermen, even as they should preserve the long-term future of some.
Fishing groups have attacked her proposals in their draft form, arguing that their fleets will be unfairly penalised and that not enough attention has been given to possible solutions such as adjusting fishing gear.
But Damanaki has made it clear she will stick to her proposals. She said: "We have to manage each stock wisely, harvesting what we can but keeping the stock healthy and productive for the future. This will bring us higher catches, a sound environment and a secure seafood supply. If we get this reform right, fishermen and coastal communities will be better off in the long run. And all Europeans will have a wider choice of fresh fish, both wild and farm-produced."
The proposals also include targets and time frames to stop overfishing; ways to allow fishermen to trade their quotas with one another, which will help some fishermen to leave the industry; support measures for small-scale fisheries; better collection of data; and new rules for fish farms.
Damanaki's proposals will also replace the current annual shouting match among countries over the size of the quota they should get. At present, ministers vie for the biggest quota with a decision taken each December. But under the new plans, these annual contests would be replaced with long-term management plans, giving greater certainty for the future and less of the wrangling that can result in fisheries losing out. Day-to-day decision making would also be devolved from Brussels to the regions.
Europe's fishing fleet is too large and too efficient, according to the European commission. This has led to drastic overfishing. Chris Davies, the UK Liberal Democrat MEP, pointed to recent academic studies suggesting Europe's fish stocks were less than 10% of their post-war levels.
Damanaki has made clear in the past few months her intention to phase out the wasteful practice of discarding healthy fish, which fishermen are forced to do under the current rules, for instance if they exceed their quota or because they catch fish for which they do not hold a quota.
But she has come under pressure from fishing groups and some member states who are concerned that ending discards and forcing fishermen to land all they catch could result in lower profits for fishing crews. They could end up having to sell lower value fish or species for which there is less demand, meaning their catches may be worth less than if they could discard at will.
Damanaki has acknowledged the problem, telling a meeting of the European parliament's cross-party Fish for the Future group that some reduction in employment in fisheries was inevitable, but that without change to protect fish stocks the loss of jobs would be even greater, because Europe's seas are so depleted.
She would like help from member states to compensate fishermen for some of their lost income, and has supported pilot schemes in which fishermen would turn their boats to other uses, such as tourism orcollecting plastic litter for recycling.
Member states would also be encouraged to let the owners of large vessels exchange fishing rights, because there are too many boats hunting too few fish.
Damanaki also wants to reform the fishing agreements that some member states have with developing countries, allowing EU vessels to fish there. These agreements have attracted controversy because, in extreme cases, they can stifle the growth of indigenous fisheries in poorer countries.
Davies said: "Commissioner Damanaki might have been expected to back down in the face of opposition from those who resist change, but she seems fearless and determined to push ahead with reforms that may be the saving of our seas, of the fishing industry, and of coastal communities.
"Our waters are capable of supporting many times more fish than now exist. It is not too late for the situation to be reversed, but we have now reached a crisis point. Overfishing must cease or there will be no more fish on the plate."
Some fishing representatives supported the proposals - but with reservations. Seafish, the UK's fish authority, said the industry should be closely involved in how to implement the proposals. Jon Harman, operations director, said: "[This could be] asignificant step towards long-term fisheries sustainability - as long as the details of the legislation allow for flexibility within their provisions."
Many food companies and retailers also welcomed the plans, several pledging to widen the market for less sought-after fish.
But some campaigners, including a coalition of WWF, Greenpeace and RSPB, called for the EU to go further, for instance by hastening the end of discards and putting stringent targets in place. Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace, said: "With 72% of Europe's fish stocks overexploited, we desperately need an emergency response plan to rescue our fisheries and the jobs and communities they support. The CFP reform process could produce that plan, but until Europe's leaders acknowledge the urgency of the problem, and make the recovery of fish stocks central to the Common Fisheries Policy, we will be stuck with plans detailing the best way to subsidise the destruction of the Europe's fishing industry."
Richard Benyon, UK fisheries minister, said the new proposals were "just the first steps".