After lengthy negotiations, EU fisheries ministers reached an agreement on fishing opportunities in 2022 on Tuesday morning, including 23 catch limits for fish populations in the North-East Atlantic exclusively managed by the EU, as well as fishing effort restrictions for Mediterranean waters. The result: around 35 % of catch limits will allow continued overfishing, including stocks of southern hake, pollack, sole and nephrops. In the Mediterranean, an insufficient reduction of fishing effort was agreed. The decision taken by fisheries ministers overshot the European Commission´s original proposals for several species.
Apparently, there was great resistance in some Member States about following the scientific advice and the agreed objectives for the Common Fisheries Policy already ahead of the Council meeting. Discussions on the provisions for the Mediterranean were particularly drawn out. This short term defence of fishing sector interests spells further trouble ahead.
Fishing opportunities for a number of stocks have to be negotiated with countries outside of the EU, such as Norway and the UK. While a deal was made with Norway ahead of the Council meeting, no agreement had been reached with the UK. Therefore, provisional quotas were put in place for the first quarter of 2022. These are to be based on the fishing opportunities agreed in 2021, rather than on scientific advice, which is what is set out in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU – another deviation from the principle of following scientific advice. The European Commission still hopes that an agreement with the UK can be reach by 20 December at the latest. If that fails, they will set unilateral catch limits for stocks currently without agreed catch limits.
Negotiations took place against the background of a report from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), stating that while overall stock status in EU waters has improved since 2003, many stocks (> 40 %) are still overexploited, and the number of overexploited stocks and the proportion of stocks outside safe biological limits increased in 2019 (the last year analysed). According to the report, of the 42 stocks considered, 60 % were either overfished or outside safe biological limits, or both.
STECF had been requested to report on progress in achieving MSY objectives in the Common Fisheries Policy (Reg. 1380/2013), stating that “maximum sustainable yield exploitation rate shall be achieved by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020 for all stocks”. The Committee observed that even progress before 2019 had been too slow to allow all populations to be managed at or below FMSY no later than 2020. Clearly, the Council has ignored scientific advice and EU legislation more than once in recent years, and the EU is not on track to reach MSY – perhaps not even by 2025. According to the European Commission’s own report, overfishing in the North-East Atlantic is at 43 % and the situation in the Mediterranean and Black seas is even worse, with 83 % of fish stocks subject to overfishing.