Born and bred on the Australian coast, people often ask why I’m in Europe working on fisheries. Why would I want to leave Australia’s amazing beaches? Why pick on the European Union (EU)?
Isn’t the EU leading the charge on smashing IUU fishing and global ocean governance? North Sea cod is now sustainable, and Denmark has an excellent reputation for sustainable fisheries. Well, yes, and, no…
Australia is beautiful, but Europe is the world’s largest trader in fish and seafood products. So, if you’re like me and want to protect the world’s oceans and secure a sustainable future for global fish stocks, Europe’s not a bad place to be. And there’s plenty to do.
Back in in 2009, the situation was dire. Chronic overfishing in EU waters had led to declining fish stocks, profits, and the livelihoods of fishers. Decisions based on politics ruled the day, scientific advice was ignored and many thousands of tonnes of fish were being thrown away.
But then, a huge public campaign by over 190 groups and charismatic celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, combined with dogged political leadership, secured a successful reform of EU fisheries law in 2013. The reform legislated an end to overfishing and would ensure fisheries were sustainable, profitable and fair.
All the evidence suggests that once we take the leap, there will be more fish and a secure future for fishers.
This law requires the EU follow scientific advice in order to end overfishing and restore fish stocks by 2015 – or make progress towards achieving it by 2020 at the latest. The reformed version of the Common Fisheries Policy requires an end to the waste of thousands of tonnes of fish at sea by 2019, and says that fishers who have a low environmental impact should be rewarded with more quota.
But, now, just two years from the 2020 deadline, EU fisheries ministers are playing chicken – seeing how far they can flout the laws they signed up to, before facing either sanctions or fisheries that have been exploited beyond recovery.
The rate of legislated overfishing has barely decreased in four years. 55 per cent – yes, more than half – of all annual fishing limits are still being set above scientific advice. Discarding by trawlers continues, with over 31 million Baltic cod thrown back into the sea between 2015 and 2016, despite that stock being in a critical state and the practice of discarding banned.
Big fishing companies have been hoarding quota – placing it in the hands of a few powerful players, without national governments even knowing, leading to criminal investigations in Denmark. There are also fresh allegations of poor regulation in the Netherlands, UK and other EU countries. On a national level, small-scale fishers are still only getting access to a fraction of the quotas that bottom trawlers do, yet they often employ more people and cause much less damage to the marine environment.
While all of this has been going on, the EU has raised the bar on efforts to address the biggest threats to global fish stocks. By introducing regulations to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, the EU’s football-style yellow and red carding system publicly shames non-EU countries that cannot vouch for the legality of their catch.
This begs the question - if the EU can do this abroad, why can’t it achieve the same at home? Wouldn’t the EU’s new role as global fish police be more meaningful – and successful – if it cleaned up its own backyard, by eliminating overfishing, illegal and unreported fishing first?
Today, EU fisheries ministers will converge on Brussels to set fishing limits for 2018 in the North Sea and Atlantic.Ideally the Ministers would consider the sound scientific advice in front of them, debate a few details, and agree on sustainable fishing limits without too much fuss by 6pm Tuesday. But, this is European politics, and contrary to what you might expect, that is not historically how things are done in fisheries meetings.
Based on previous performances, Fisheries Ministers from all EU nations will negotiate hard behind closed doors, before eventually emerging to announce a compromise in progress towards sustainability and safe stock levels, which on further analysis will prove to ring hollow. I fear that EU countries will keep overfishing and that the future of Europe’s fish stocks (and the majority of its fishers) put in further jeopardy. This is not progress, this is organised chaos.
This is what we have come to expect from EU fisheries meetings – but we should expect more. It shouldn’t be like this, and it doesn’t have to be. Despite the big fishing lobbies and the complications of dealing with 28 nations, numerous seas, and over 120 fish stocks, it is entirely achievable for the EU to end overfishing. All the evidence suggests that once we take the leap, there will be more fish and a secure future for fishers. It just takes a little courage, and the will to follow the laws that we have already signed up to.
I’ll be in Brussels, with the Our Fish team, keeping a close eye on proceedings. You too can follow the events of the EU Agrifish Council on Our Fish TV, where we’ll be broadcasting live, and on our Twitter feed @our_fish
- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.