Fisheries ministers continue overfishing in breach of EU law

Published on December 21, 2020

EU Common Fisheries Policy obligates member states to achieve maximum sustainable yield “by 2020 at the latest”. Still, December 17, EU fisheries ministers decided to set around one third of the Atlantic fishing quotas for 2021 managed exclusively by the EU above the sustainable limits advised by scientists. And the Mediterranean will remain the most overfished sea in the world.

The refusal to take decisions in line with EU law came despite loud and repeated reminders from environmental NGOs before this week’s EU Agrifish council – and in connection to every fisheries council since the fisheries reform was decided in 2013. Several quotas, or Total Allowable Catches (TACs), mainly for data-limited fish stocks, exceeded scientifically advised limits, including those for southern hake, pollack in the Bay of Biscay, cod in the Kattegat, among others.­­­

“This is not good enough. One year after missing the legal deadline to end overfishing, the Council has once again set many limits above the scientific advice, jeopardising stock recovery”, said ClientEarth Fisheries Science and Policy Advisor Jenni Grossmann.

As always the December Council negotiations were intense and Fisheries ministers again took all night to reach an agreement. This year the Agrifish Council did not convene in November, therefore ministers had to agree on three proposals for fishing opportunities, in the North Sea and the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and the deep-sea stocks.

By exceeding scientific advice for around 35 percent of catch limits, fisheries ministers are clearly disregarding the objectives and legal obligations of the EU fisheries policy, which requires all fish stocks to be harvested sustainably. Despite all stated Green Deal ambitions, short-termism continues to drive decisions against the backdrop of an environmental emergency”, said Vera Coelho, Senior Director of Advocacy at Oceana in Europe.

EU Ministers also strongly opposed the European Commission proposal to reduce 2021 ’fishing effort days’ for Mediterranean trawlers by 15 percent, and limited the reduction to 7.5 percent in addition to 10 percent effort reduction for 2020 already included in the Western Mediterranean multiannual plan. The decision disregards scientific advice calling for effort reductions of up to 80 percent for most overfished stocks. This will also cement the Mediterranean’s unenviable position as the world’s most overfished.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said: ”Openly I regret that the ministers were not ready to fully take into account the scientific advice and agree on more ambitious effort reductions that would have allowed us to restore the fish stocks to sustainable levels and to ensure the long term the socio-economic viability of the fishermen and women operating in the Western Mediterranean. The scientific advice was very clear on the extremely poor state of the demersal stocks and on what measures are required: 19 stocks out of 22 remain dramatically overfished”.

The negotiations for the Atlantic and North Sea were quite different from what ministers are used to. They only discussed 25 TACs, given that the bulk of the fish stocks is shared with the United Kingdom. The EU is still negotiating a future agreement with the UK.

As a transition measure, the ministers also agreed on the Commission’s proposed roll over of 25 percent of 2020 for most TACs shared with third countries, including the UK and Norway, as a contingency plan for January – March 2021. However, the EU pelagic fishing sector appreciated the adoption of a higher roll over quota percentage of 65 percent instead of 25 percent for key seasonal fisheries targeting species such as mackerel, blue whiting and horse mackerel.

“It’s a guarantee… without which fishermen would not be able to continue their activities on January 1,” explained German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency for Agence France-Presse.

It may be true that the decision will allow fishermen to continue their activities in EU-waters as negotiations with the UK are finalized, but all access to UK waters will still be pending an approval. In addition Norway has urged UK and EU to start negotiations and made clear that neither of their fishing vessels will get access to their economic zone without a deal in place January 1, 2021. To be clear, EU fishermen’s legal access to third countries waters, were many EU vessels catch most, are far from “guaranteed” to go uninterrupted at this point.

“If all EU vessels are squeezed into the EU member states economic zones on 1 January, we will have dramatic overexploitation in these areas”, said Jan Isakson, FishSec director.

That continuing with the status quo could lead to overfishing of depleted fish populations, was also raised by Rainer Froese of Germanys GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research.

A need for pragmatism in setting 2021 TACs “should not be an excuse for ignoring scientific advice to avoid overfishing”, said Froese, to Politico. “For example, ICES recommended a 17 percent reduction in the 2021 catch of North Sea cod, and this reduction should be applied to the preliminary TAC. A rollover approach that leads to overfishing in the first quarter will be difficult to reverse later on”, Froese continued.

Another scientist, Didier Gascuel, director of the Center for Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries at Agrocampus Ouest in France, said to Politico that the EUs stopgap measure was “clearly not acceptable” and would “detrimental effects on fish populations, fishers and marine ecosystems”.

”For both the severely unhealthy fish stocks of cod in the Kattegat and roundnose grenadier in the deep sea, ICES had advised zero catch, yet both received ’bycatch’ TACs (supposed quotas for ‘untargeted’ catch). A number of other TACs, which the European Commission had proposed in line with ICES advice, including southern hake, and sole and pollack in the Bay of Biscay, were pushed above scientific advice by EU fisheries ministers”, said Rebecca Hubbard, Our Fish Program Director.

’Despite the Agrifish Council’s efforts to mitigate the predominantly austere proposal from the European Commission, the fishing industry is still left with several quota reductions and restrictive measures adopted concerning key species for the livelihoods of many fishermen and women in the sector’, fisheries industry body Europeche wrote in a statement.

“Brexit and COVID-19 created an unprecedented situation for our fishing communities. This year’s negotiations were, in many cases, done in uncharted waters. But I think that the agreement we forged, is a good compass for the months to come. It allows us to secure continuity and a clear future for our fishing communities to the maximum extent possible without undermining our sustainability commitments”, said Julia Klöckner, Germany’s Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture.

Andrea Ripol, Fisheries Policy Officer of Seas At Risk, concluded: ”Fisheries ministers agreed to continue to overfish even those stocks that are managed by the EU alone. This sends the wrong message ahead of the upcoming negotiations with the UK and Norway on shared stocks and runs counter to EU ambitions to mitigate the biodiversity and climate crises”.