Ombudsman investigates EU Council’s lack of transparency around fishing quotas

Published on May 14, 2019

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly today presented a new inquiry into the lack of transparency about the basis for national ministers’ annual decisions on fishing quotas.

“The famous all night meetings of ministers in Brussels are completely behind closed doors and yet make important decisions for the sustainability of fishing stocks and of jobs in fishing communities around Europe,” said Ms O’Reilly, in a press release.

The announcement is following a complaint from the NGO ClientEarth against the EU Council’s lack of transparency. Last month, lawyers lodged a complaint against the Council after many years of unexplained fishing quotas set above the scientific advice for sustainable fishing limits.

“Every year, European fisheries ministers are setting unsustainable fishing limits in closed-door meetings. This lack of transparency makes it impossible for the public to hold governments to account”,  ClientEarth lawyer Anne Friel said reacting to the news.

The European Union is required by law to end overfishing in its waters by 2020 but has a long way to go to achieve that, despite EU fisheries ministers’ claims that their agreed 2019 limits for more than 140 stocks show progress toward sustainability.

Analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that 41 percent of the limits agreed in December’s Council meeting were set above the level scientists advised for 2019. This is an improvement on the 44 percent figure for 2018 but far short of what’s needed to meet the 2020 deadline.

Andrew Clayton, project director at Pew, recently pointed out improved transparency as one of the factors to help verify progress towards the objective of ending overfishing:

“For example, the Commission could publish a list of the catch limits that exceed scientific advice so that member States can focus on ending overfishing. Ministers could explain why they set some limits higher than scientists advised. If the Council has access to new scientific information, this should be made public and reviewed through the same rigorous process that the bulk of advice to the EU is put through. If ministers are making economic arguments that overfishing in the short term is good for business, jobs, or food security, the public should hear and test these arguments”.

Studies of fisheries management show that transparency and participation is key to sustainable management. Scientists found that “the conversion of scientific advice into policy, through a participatory and transparent process, is at the core of achieving fisheries sustainability, regardless of other attributes of the fisheries”.

Limited transparency is also an issue in the regional high-level groups where EU member states make joint recommendations on fisheries management. The Baltic Sea high-level group, Baltfish, only recently under the current Swedish presidency started to share all meeting documents with stakeholders via e-mail. But Baltfish still have not managed to set up a website where documents and information can be found by the public, even though this has been requested repeatedly since at least 2013 by both NGOs and by the fishing industry through the Baltic Sea Advisory Council.

Further, a case study by Transparency International EU (2016) shows that the lack of transparency and accountability can have “real and detrimental effects on the quality of fisheries quota decisions”.

“The Council’s meeting documents must be made available in a timely manner and provide relevant information to help the public understand what their governments are doing. Being more transparent would also incentivise ministers to follow advice from scientists rather than caving to industry demands. Year after year, European ministers have failed to end overfishing. Without urgent action, the EU will breach its legal obligation to ensure sustainable fishing limits by 2020”, ClientEarth lawyer Anne Friel concludes.