Kicking the Can, Not Walking the Walk

Published on December 19, 2017

The ink is hardly dry from this summer’s UN high level Ocean Conference, but the EU seems to have forgotten it already.

The Ocean Conference, an early follow-up on one of the 16 sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted in September 2015, brought some excitement and hope. But talk is one thing, walking another.

The Oceans conference used a similar model to the Paris climate agreement: a collection of voluntary commitments.

Perhaps the flagship commitment by the EU was that EU marine waters are to reach “Good Environmental Status” by 2020. This was a repeat of the goal of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) of 2008. An optimist may hope that making this promise again, and to the world at the UN, would raise the stakes: failure to achieve the goal would be a global embarrassment, and question the credibility of not only the oceans commitment, but also role of the EU in the whole SDG process.

To get a healthy marine environment, contributions are needed by the directorates and ministries responsible for environment, but also fisheries, agriculture, transport and more.

A key aspect of “good environmental status” (GES) is healthy fish stocks. In the MSFD, this is estimated by three criteria: the reproductive capacity, the level of fishing mortality and the age and size structure of the population.

In a briefing released two weeks before EU fisheries ministers met to decide fishing catches for 2018, the European Environmental Agency gave its assessment of progress towards the fisheries facet of GES:

–    There is not enough information to assess the indicator of age and size distribution.

–    Only 26 per cent of the fish stocks assessed met both of the other criteria.

–    22 per cent of the stocks assessed in European waters outside the Mediterranean and Black Seas did not meet either criteria (and in the Mediterranean and Black Seas it was far worse).

The conclusion is clear: we have to fish less from most fish stocks. At the very least, scientific advice should be followed.

But this is not what the fisheries ministers decided.

If the EU is to reach its targets and live up to its international commitment, kicking the can down the road, means more drastic cuts will be needed next year.  If it doesn’t meet its commitments on fisheries, the losers will be fishers, who will have less fish to catch in the future, consumers, and the general public who want healthy marine environments.

This should be a common concern to all of us, including the stakeholders in the EU:s advisory councils on fisheries.

The environmental group Seas at Risk is running a campaign to meet the 2020 goals.

/Charles Berkow, Senior Policy Adviser