Europe and Central Asia
31 Jan 2018

#OceanAlert: Between the Devil and the deep blue sea

By Bruna Campos & Gui-Xi Young

As a direct result of fishing, tens of thousands of threatened seabirds, turtles and marine mammals needlessly perish in European waters each year. The EU’s recent attempts to tackle the issue have failed so spectacularly that even e-NGOs are now saying ‘no legislation is better than bad legislation’. Bruna Campos examines how EU marine policy ended up ‘between the Devil and the deep blue sea’ – and where we must go from here.

It’s a cruel fate for a sublime Balearic Shearwater – already Critically Endangered in Europe – to die at the end of a fisherman’s hook or embroiled in one of their nets. Yet, this is the tragic end for many tens of thousands of shearwater, petrel, fulmar and seaduck species. Magnificent marine animals, including Harbour porpoise, the Loggerhead Turtle and endangered sharks also fall victim to the dangers of fishing in potentially devastating numbers. And baby fish are prematurely ripped from the ocean before they have had the chance to reproduce and restock their populations.

BirdLife Europe has been at the forefront of the campaign to end incidental seabird bycatch in fishing gears for years. And help finally seemed at hand in 2016 when the European Commission proposed a new regulation explicitly designed to curb the negative environmental impacts of fishing. But politics being politics, the blue skies didn’t stay clear for very long…

Right from the off, the Commission’s proposal was riddled with holes – failing to deal with fundamental issues such as seabird and turtle bycatch.  The European Council (made of up of the heads of all EU Member States) did not help matters by allowing for more negative impacts from fishing. Notably, Spain and France stood up against rules to tackle bycatch of seabirds, turtles and marine mammals. And though the European Parliament had two crucial opportunities to fill in these gaps – firstly at its Fisheries Committee meeting in November and then in full plenary with all MEPs in January – it did not seize them. Far from it. Though seabirds and marine mammals – in danger of losing all safeguards – were given a last-minute reprieve, MEPs voted to continue allowing the drowning of turtles in fishing gear and the capture of baby fish. Moreover, the new amendments make a lame duck of the Commission which would be powerless to impose management measures if Member States fail to do so.

So why do EU governments and MEPs want legislation that is actually bad for the environment? They certainly could not have been unaware of the regulation’s inherent flaws. Under the rousing banner of #OceanAlert, BirdLife Europe banded together with 38 NGOs to ask MEPs to save nature in our oceans; and such was the extent of our collective online campaigning that our hashtag started trending on Twitter in the run up to the vote.

The short answer is that both EU governments and the Parliament have quite deliberately towed the destructive line of some fishing lobbies – against the clear demands of sustainable fishermen and environmentalists. And the man leading this charge is Spanish MEP Gabriel Mato of the conservative EPP (European People’s Party). His own political interests rest decidedly with keeping the fishing industry happy.  With a re-election campaign on the horizon, it seems that his raison d’être in office is to weaken existing environmental rules and block any improvements to them. But this isn’t a simple Right vs Left divide. Red lights also flashed on the S&D (Socialists & Democrats) side, with some of their MEPs voting against protecting marine life.

The January vote was our last real shot of securing a piece of legislation worth the paper it’s written on. The next stage – negotiations between the three institutions - is effectively a done deal. We can be sure that MEP Gabriel Mato will not be fighting for marine life and Spain – with some French support – will speak up against rules to tackle seabird bycatch and save baby fish, as it has done in the past.

We at BirdLife Europe, like our fellow NGOs, now find ourselves facing a difficult choice – to watch an inherently flawed regulation pass into law, with disastrous environmental consequences, or to pull the plug on it and start this whole political rigmarole again while marine life continues to die. We are quite literally caught, as the saying goes, ‘between the Devil and the deep blue sea’.

Ultimately, however, there is no way to salvage this sinking ship. We now are on high #OceanAlert, and call on the European Commission to completely withdraw this legislation and go back to the political drawing board. In the meanwhile, the European Commission should start taking countries like Spain and France to court for failing to apply existing environmental legislation to protect marine life. A  EUR 100,000 daily fine would surely prompt a serious rethink of their laissez faire attitude towards their fisheries.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.