Brussels, 12 December 2023 – Following extensive negotiations, EU fisheries ministers have successfully reached an agreement on fishing opportunities (quotas) for 2024 in the Atlantic, the North Sea, and Skagerrak/Kattegat. While the ministers adhered to scientific advice for sustainable limits concerning most commercially important fish stocks, they once again opted to set limits for certain vulnerable fish populations, potentially placing them at a greater risk of collapse.
Negotiations have become increasingly complex since the UK’s departure from the European Union, involving various negotiation settings. Trilateral negotiations between the UK, the EU, and Norway focus on vital species such as North Sea herring and cod. Bilateral negotiations with the UK cover over a hundred different stocks that were divided post-Brexit. Additionally, EU-internal negotiations address stocks exclusively fished by EU vessels in its waters, where member states have conflicting interests. Commencing in late October, the negotiations concluded after a marathon three-day session in Brussels.
The EU’s stance in the quota negotiations is grounded in the legal framework provided by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and Multi Annual Plans per sea basin (North Sea, North Western Waters, Baltic Sea, etc.). Despite these laws serving as safeguards against overexploitation, ministers often seek loopholes in regulations, perpetuating business-as-usual practices each year.
A critical concern lies in bycatch stocks—those unintentionally caught in the fishery for other species. Notably, several cod populations face historic lows, with scientific advice recommending a halt to their fishing. However, ministers consistently resist such advice, fearing backlash from closing a fishery. Of particular worry this year was the European eel, a critically endangered species, where ministers opted to decrease protection levels, as detailed in our response on eel.
Where the outcome for these scarce species is not encouraging, the quotas set for main commercial stocks align with scientific advice. For these species Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) advice is given. The Common Fisheries Policy mandates EU member states to strictly adhere to MSY advice, leading to significant reductions in Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for certain species. For instance, North Sea sole TAC was reduced by 60%, and the TAC for whiting in the Bay of Biscay decreased by 41%, despite strong protests from the fishing industry.
However, it is crucial to note that MSY advice is provided per stock and does not consider ecosystem interactions between species. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have long advocated for an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries in the EU to ensure the health of oceans.