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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
The murky waters of EU fisheries
Europe's fisheries policy is a showcase for mismanagement, characterised by disregard for science and sustainability.
Europe's role in the demise of stocks of iconic marine species such as bluefin tuna and North Sea cod is direct. But it is similarly responsible for the collapse of other fisheries: 80% of Europe's fish stocks are fished beyond sustainable levels. It is an indictment of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy that this is three times higher than the global average (25%).
There are problems at most points in the industry and its management. Oversized fleets set out to sea using subsidised fuel and, when they reach their chosen fishery, they are driven into a race against other fishers by poor methods of managing fisheries.
There are rules, but they are routinely and blatantly broken. Catches are often inaccurately reported – or not reported at all – by several European states. The European Court of Auditors recently concluded that the “real levels of catches” in European fisheries were “unknown”. You cannot manage a fishery without knowing what is being caught.
Similarly, states fail to meet their obligations, for example to report on efforts to reduce fleets. When the latest report was due (for 2007), the UK failed to file figures and most other countries' reports were inadequate. This is a huge problem: overcapacity is a major factor driving overfishing.
This disregard for rules is compounded by an over-regard for business interests, demonstrated in subsidies. The fishing industry receives around €550 million a year just from the European Fisheries Fund; national governments (led by Spain) top that up.
Invoking short-term social and economic pressures, governments relegate science. The European Commission and the Council of Ministers have recently set quotas 42%-57% higher than those recommended by scientists. It is not just the size of the catch that matters; the by-catch is also a problem. Between 20% and 60% of a catch is thrown away, enfeebling other fisheries and damaging the environment.
This short-termism will ultimately impoverish everyone in the fishing industry. Conservative estimates suggest that illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing will cost the EU more than €20 billion in lost revenues and 27,800 jobs between 2008 and 2020.
The EU would do better to re-direct its subsidies to fund more effective monitoring and control of fishing activities. But it also needs to pursue abuses more aggressively through national and European courts. Improving the traceability of fish and adopting an equivalent of the US's Lacey Act, to prohibit the trade in illegal fish, might prove effective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the chronic failure of governance by national governments, studies have shown that developing systems of ownership of fisheries by fishermen results in stocks declining significantly less and encourages a long-term view of fisheries and the ecosystems that support them. Ownership systems should be explored.
The Council of Ministers, which has consistently failed to implement recovery plans for overfished stocks, could help by establishing networks of marine protected areas (MPAs), one of the most promising ways of enabling fish stocks to recover, as trials in the US and elsewhere have shown. The Commission and Council of Ministers should not have the automatic right to veto environmental measures that might affect access to fisheries.
For MPAs to work, fisheries and environmental protection policies need to be harmonised. Unfortunately, the Commission has consistently made sure that fisheries are virtually exempt from all other EU conservation measures, such as the Habitats Directive.
This clash between EU fisheries and environmental policies means, in effect, that it is only within waters governed by national rules (typically 12 miles) that MPAs can be created without the Commission's agreement. It also means that, while the oil industry has to make large environmental-impact assessments before drilling, trawlers can rake over massive stretches of the seabed, potentially having a far worse impact than drilling.
It is perverse – and an example of a system that has come to symbolise the worst aspects of European governance.
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Issues/Corruption / mismanagement
Political processes/EU Common Fisheries Policy
Political processes/US Lacey Act