Report: The EU is not addressing fishing overcapacity as it should under the CFP

Published on November 23, 2018

A new report from the Fisheries Secretariat shows that EU rules regarding fishing capacity are not being followed in the Baltic region. Member States have fudged their figures, obscuring which fleet segments and vessels fish on which stocks and the European Commission has not revised its guidelines in order to ensure clarity, as recommended by its own advisory committee.

There is clear evidence that overcapacity has been used to influence quota negotiations at the EU Council, however, despite EU subsidy funding being based on there being no overcapacity the Commission has not taken action to follow through.

Article 22 of the EU Common Fisheries Policy requires Member States to adjust the fishing capacity of its fleet to the available fishing opportunities.

Overcapacity should be identified and addressed, in order to achieve a better balance with the harvested stocks, avoid overfishing, reduce incentives for discarding and other illegal practices, and avoid the socioeconomic problems caused by too many vessels competing over limited quotas. However, the system put in place to address overcapacity in 2013 fails at just about every step, according to the report.


Reform establishes requirements

Overcapacity in the EU fishing fleet has long been identified as a main cause of the problems in the troubled European fisheries. The reform of the Common European Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2013, introduced new tools to tackle the problem. A new FishSec study, “Too many vessels chase too few fish”, show that the tools are not being used, or are being used incorrectly. There are major failings both in the EU Commission and on the Member State level. The Parliament and the Council are not playing the watchdog role that they should. As a result, there is still overcapacity and Member States continue to use “socio-economic” arguments to keep short-term catches too high, and fish stocks and long-term catches too low.

In the run-up to the 2013 CFP reform, the EU Commission Green Paper identified fishing fleet overcapacity as the fundamental problem to be solved by the reform. Under Article 22 in the Basic Regulation of the CFP, EU Member States have been legally obliged to seek to identify and reduce overcapacity in their national fishing fleets. The aim is to achieve a better match between the amount of fish that the fleet can catch, and the amount of fish that can be caught sustainably in EU waters. To reinforce this rule, the CFP makes EU subsidies for the fisheries sector dependent on the national reports.

The national reports are to be based on guidelines developed by the Commission. These in turn are to be based on relevant technical, social and economic parameters, and specify a number of indicators.

The establishment of these requirements, along with a set of mechanisms by which fleet reduction is to be translated into real life action, makes Article 22 a key pillar of the CFP. It also makes EU Member State implementation vital for the possibility to end overfishing.

Reporting under Article 22 should provide national authorities of Member States, and indirectly the European Commission and Parliament and others, with the information they need to identify and act on fleet overcapacity. In a review of annual fleet capacity balance reports submitted by EU member states with Baltic coasts, the study finds that this is still not working. The reason is non-compliance with provisions of Article 22 by EU Member States as well as by the European Commission itself.


The system is not delivering

As a consequence, the CFP’s system designed to reduce overcapacity is not working. Five years into the implementation of the reform, overcapacity remains a main driver behind overfishing in EU waters. This is a key factor behind the EU’s expected failure to meet the twin 2020 deadlines for achieving Maximum Sustainable Yield (as agreed at both UN and EU level) and Good Environmental Status for fisheries (under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive).

The FishSec report takes the western Baltic cod – a fishery showing clear symptoms of overfishing – as a case study. An in-depth look was taken at the national capacity balance reports from Denmark, Germany, Poland, and Latvia. The findings are that national reports clearly do not fulfill the intentions of the CFP – to seek to identify and address structural overcapacity. The most clear cases of non-compliance are found in the national reports from Denmark and Germany, who dominate the Western Baltic cod fishery. Neither of their analysed national reports reflect the actual extent of overcapacity in the cod fishery.

Denmark’s capacity balance report identifies a number of different fishing fleet segments, defined by length and gear type. Since one fisheries segment, as defined, could consist of vessels fishing in the Baltic Sea and vessels fishing in the North Sea, for species that may or may not include cod, it is not even possible to say which sea the capacity is targeting, not to mention what fish stock. Despite indicators showing high risk of or possible overcapacity in the four Danish fleet segments most likely to be fishing cod, all of these segments, and the fleet as a whole, is classed as being in balance with fishing opportunities. The Danish report offers no explanation for this overall assessment.

In Germany’s capacity balance report, the smaller vessels, with a lower share of the catch, are classed as being out of balance with fishing opportunities. While the larger vessel, with the major share of the catch, are classed as being in balance despite indicators clearly suggesting otherwise.

A comparison with the capacity balance reports from the remaining EU Member States with Baltic coasts (Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and Sweden) suggests that the four reports reviewed are of similar quality as the others. The flawed reporting seem to be spread across the Baltic Sea,


Inadequate guidelines and reports

The European Commission itself also fails to comply with key provisions of Article 22 in a number of ways. As an example, its Guidelines for Member State fleet reporting do not indicate relevant enough parameters and indicators for national capacity balance reporting. The European Commission’s Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, STECF, has repeatedly criticised the Guidelines and proposed improvements. But the critique and recommendations have not been reflected in the Commission’s reports to the European Parliament and Council. Also, the Commission has taken no visible follow-up actions in response to STECF’s findings.

Although the Basic Regulation clearly requires that the European Commission’s capacity balance report shall include Member States’ action plans, none of the Commission’s reports subsequent to the 2013 CFP reform does so.

Furthermore, there is a serious weakness in the CFP’s indicators for measuring fishing capacity, as they do not take account of ’technological creep’, the gradual increase in fishing capacity resulting from any technical innovation such as sonar, underwater cameras, improved more efficient fishing gear, better propellers, etc. As a result a Member State’s ability to catch fish may increase despite indicators showing a decrease. Another fundamental flaw is that the CFP measures overcapacity in relation to politically determined “fishing opportunities”. As these can be inflated due to the overcapacity, imbalance between the fleet and the actual fish stocks can be masked.

It is relevant to note that it is still common for Member States and some stakeholders to argue for the right to catch more fish than what is sustainable for socio-economic reasons. However, for a Member State to repeatedly plead socio-economic reasons for higher fishing quotas is very likely an indirect admission that it has an overcapacity in its fleet. Claims regarding socio-economic impacts should trigger the Commission (and where relevant, the Member State) to take a closer look at the capacity balance of fleet segments fishing the relevant stock. This has not been done, even though it is clear that overcapacity still is a concrete threat to fleet profitability and stock sustainability.

Overfishing and the consequent depletion of our common resources in the oceans threaten the wider marine environment as well as the commercial fisheries sector and those working in it, the welfare of coastal communities and ultimately food security. Up until the time of the 2013 reform of the CFP, the EU Member States’ progress towards the goal of maintaining or restoring stocks to MSY levels (maximum sustainable yield) was insufficient. Accordingly, the reform stipulate that by 2020 at the latest (and where possible by 2015) fishing pressure is to be set at FMSY (the level of catches of a given stock that produces the MSY). This deadline is fast approaching with less than 2 years left to end overfishing, and overcapacity is still an obstacle to reaching that goal.

FishSec recommends that Member States more actively seek to identify and address imbalances in their fleets; while the European Commission must revise its Guidelines to ensure that national reports reflect the total pressure on a fish stock. Member States and the European Commission must act to ensure that a regional report is prepared showing the total capacity from all countries targeting key fish stocks in the Baltic.