EU unveils plan to revive dwindling fish stocks

The European Union acknowledged that existing policy has failed to stop declining European stocks, which have plummeted to about 10 percent of their post-WWII levels.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
European Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki of Greece poses with fish models after a news conference on the Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels July 13.

The European Union has unveiled plans to overhaul its fisheries policy in a reform hailed as the most radical in four decades.

“We have to change,” said Maria Damanaki, EU Maritime and Fisheries Commissioner, in Brussels. "We cannot afford business as usual any more because the stocks are really collapsing."

The EU has had a Common Fisheries Policy for 28 years, but according to Ms. Damanaki this policy has failed to stop the decline of stocks. According to EU-sponsored research, 75 percent of European fish stocks are overfished.

In the Mediterranean, 82 percent of stocks are overfished. In fact, 3 out of 4 white fish species there are on the brink of extinction. Recent academic studies suggest that Europe’s fish stocks have plummeted to about 10 percent of their post WWII levels.

A key point of the new plans is a ban on "discarding." Under existing rules, fishing fleets are awarded annual catch quotas, so vessels dump any by-catch – nonquota species or immature fish – to avoid being penalized by fisheries inspectors for exceeding their limits.

The EU estimates that up to half the catch of the European white fish industry is thrown overboard.

The new rules would force fishermen to land all the fish caught and count these against their quotas. This should apply to mackerel, herring, and tuna as early as 2014, species like cod, hake, and sole would follow a year later. By 2016, all commercial fishing would fall under the regulations.

“If we get this reform right, fishermen and coastal communities will be better off in the long run,” Damanaki said during her presentation in Brussels. The commissioner did concede that landing lower quality fish would mean a loss in profits and jobs in the industry, but pointed out that no change would mean even greater losses.

The fishing industry and environmentalists both appeared to mostly welcome the new proposals.

But for Uta Bellion, director of the Pew Environment Group’s European Marine Program in Brussels, the changes do not go far enough.

“The proposal falls short in the way it addresses fishing fleet overcapacity, a key driver of overfishing,” says Mrs. Bellion. “Instead of mandating a capacity reduction, it aims to decrease the EU fishing fleet by what amounts to the quasi-privatization of EU fish resources.”

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