A sustainable Common Fisheries Policy

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

The European Union, surrounded in the main by sea, has a strong focus on its Blue Economy.  The implementation of a reformed Common Fisheries Policy has been driven with sustainability at its core. This has already contributed to achieving good environmental status records for European seas and ensured that the exploitation of living marine biological resources regenerates and maintains populations of harvested species. 

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a reduced demand for fish and disruption to supply chains which in turn substantially decreased fish landed (down 17%), employment (down 19%) and net profits (down 29%) for 2020 compared to 2019 for the sector. Despite this, European Union fishing fleets remained profitable in 2020, reporting healthy gross profits of 26%, €1.5 billion, and net profit margins of 14 %, €800 million. These positive figures were reached through a combination of low fuel prices and the sector’s efforts in previous years to achieve Maximum Sustainable Yield. 

Additional to the health pandemic, in 2020, the United Kingdom left the European Union, meaning a large majority of Atlantic and North Sea fishing stocks were not exclusively under the EU’s control. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the two entities failed to set fish quotas for 2021. Now, negotiations have, in principle, been agreed setting out catch limits for jointly managed fish stocks for 2021.

Each year the Commission reviews four areas of the fishing: the progress made in the exploitation and state of fish stocks; the capacity of the EU fleet and the available fishing opportunities; the socio-economic performance of the EU fleet; and the implementation of the landing obligation. This review is included in the Total Allowable Catches which is applied the following year to most commercial stocks in EU waters, except the Mediterranean Sea. The allowable catches are then based on scientific advice and economic analysis from independent bodies. Later in the year, the Council composed of the Fisheries Ministers of each Member State, makes a final decision on these allowable catches. Once fixed, the amounts are divided up among Member States according to pre-agreed shares, the so-called quotas. Member States manage the national quotas and allocate them among the fishing industry, as a right to fish and land a certain amount of fish within the calendar year.

For the Mediterranean, according to the multi-annual plan for the Western Mediterranean for 2022, the Council will attempt to reduce targets based on scientific advice and the multi-annual plan’s objective to be reached by 2025. For fishing opportunities agreed under the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations, the Commission further negotiates conservation and management issues.

Since January 2019, fishermen are not permitted to throw fish back to the sea once they have been caught. This landing obligation applies to all catches of regulated species, unless an exemption has been agreed. Regulated species are those that fall under catch limits or, as in the Mediterranean, species which are subject to minimum sizes. Undersized fish cannot be sold for direct human consumption purposes, whilst prohibited species cannot be retained on board and must be returned to the sea. The discarding of prohibited species is recorded and forms an important part of the science base for the monitoring of such species.

The fishing industry and national administrations provide data on their catches and fishing activity, which are used by marine scientists who assess the state of the stocks. The scientists also use samples from commercial landings and from discards, alongside research vessels to sample the amounts of fish in the sea in different sites and at different times of the year. Scientists determine the state of the stock and then calculate how much should be fished the following year to ensure sustainability. This work is done through the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an independent body that provides the Commission with the scientific advice. 

Recent analysis highlights that fleet segments operating in the Atlantic and North Sea registered higher economic performance than those in the Baltic and the Mediterranean, where overfishing or overexploitation continues. Furthermore, socio-economic data suggests that the economic performance and salaries of fishermen and women improves where fleets depend on stocks that are caught sustainably and tends to stagnate where stocks are overfished or overexploited. It is therefore essential that the Commission and Member States focus on implementing landing obligation through the use of innovative control tools to maintain a balanced marine ecosystem and fishing industry.

The European Commission has attempted to provide rapid support to the fisheries sector through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) with compensation payments of €136 million across 22 Member States. 61% of these funds were spent on temporary cessation support, 17% on compensation to aquaculture producers and 14% on support to the processing sector. A temporary State Aid framework and support from the European Regional Development Fund were also made available. 

Keeping the fishing industry sustainable and active, whilst protecting the coastal ecosystems, in the European Union through the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy is essential to national economies, communities and especially island economies. Valuing the Blue Economy through sustainable practices and respect for the regeneration of Europe’s seas will ensure strong tourism and longevity of the fishing sectors for Europe for generations to come. 

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