European marine ecosystems and biodiversity suffer from overfishing caused by the overcapacity of the EU fishing fleet. Eighty-eight per cent of fish stocks are harvested beyond what is sustainable, while less fishing pressure would allow stocks to recover and greater yields could be maintained in the future.
Current fishing practices also threaten other components of marine ecosystems, such as seabirds and marine mammals. In fact, BirdLife International estimates that 200,000 seabirds die annually in the gears of European fishing vessels and has been urging the EU to take action for over a decade. The continuous decrease in fish catches by European fishermen has also led to the loss of one third of fishing jobs, which has resulted in a severe decline of many communities whose livelihoods depend on fishing. As a result many businesses survive only thanks to public subsidies.
The EU is acting on these issues by negotiating a new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) for all 27 EU Member States. However, this week, in a major setback, the Fisheries Council, composed of Fisheries Ministers from all Member States, came to a ‘general approach’ agreement that seriously watered down the progressive EMFF proposal made by the European Commission last year. Those countries upholding much needed reform for sustainable fisheries – Germany, UK, Sweden and Denmark – were overridden by the majority.
As part of the CFP reform package, the EMFF is meant to provide public funding to Member States to implement the CFP and its objectives. Birdlife Europe advocates that public funds should be used to ensure sustainable fisheries, including the elimination of bycatch (the capture of non-target species, such as birds and marine mammals).
The Fisheries Council’s general approach to the EMFF supports subsidies that actually contribute to overfishing, such as funding for building and modernizing fishing vessels, and it reintroduces measures that had been excluded by the European Commission because they have been previously misused by Member States, such as funding for the scrapping of boats and temporary cessation, where the boats stay in the harbour while the fishermen still receive public aid.
Commissioner for Maritime and Fisheries affairs, Maria Damanaki, emphasized that the Commission’s more ambitious proposal is still on the table and will be discussed after the decision of the Parliament through the trilateral negotiations between the European Commission, Council and Parliament. She also stressed that the fund needs to support sustainable fisheries to reach the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) target.
The Council agreement this week allows for 15% of the EMFF funds to be used for fleet restructuring until 2017, an action that contributes to overcapacity of the EU fishing fleet. Increased funding for aquaculture as well as measures to improve control, data collection, selectivity and a move toward low impact fishing techniques were also included.
Birdlife Europe is deeply concerned that the Fisheries Ministers are moving away from sustainable fisheries and fish stock recovery and instead are prioritizing the fishing industry’s short-term economic interests. The EU is already suffering from fish stock depletion, but still the Ministers wish to continue using tax payers’ money to fund the oversized fleet. Birdlife believes that public funding should be spent on measures to reduce overfishing, bycatch and contribute to healthy ecosystems. Ensuring funding for data collection of fishing activities and marine ecosystems is a priority for establishing a scientific basis for decision-making and information on the status of fish stocks, fishing activities and their impacts on the marine environment. Monitoring of fishing activities is also extremely important to ensure compliance of fisheries with EU fishing rules.
BirdLife Europe, working in a coalition of green NGOs in Brussels, aims to ensure that fisheries management in the future contributes to achieving good environmental status in the marine environment, protects species and habitats from the impacts of fishing, supports low-impact fishing methods and saves fishing jobs.
Discussions about the EMFF and CFP reform will continue in the European Parliament this autumn and hopefully the MEPs can challenge the Council’s ‘business as usual’ approach, ensure the sustainable use of public funding and safeguard the EU’s marine ecosystems for the future.