Europe and Central Asia
10 Apr 2020

Will COVID-19 fuel the destruction of our oceans?

By Bruna Campos, Senior Marine Policy Officer
European fishers and aquaculture farmers who continue to work, like many others who provide necessary services to society, risk getting infected by COVID-19 as not all of them are able to respect social distancing measures. They are among those who will also directly face the detrimental economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. National confinement measures, restaurant closures and the halt of tourism directly impacts the demand and price of certain fresh fish.  
However, one important impact the pandemic has had on the fishing sector appears to be mostly linked to consumer behaviour. For example, some countries have seen a rise in the price of certain fish due to an increased demand and less landings, directly linked to confinement and lock-downs.
On the 2nd of April, the European Commission published a proposal for a second package of measures to respond to the COVID-19 crisis within the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, through the use of the current European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). Unlike the first package proposed by the Commission just one month ago on the 13th of March, this proposal unfortunately includes ambiguous measures that are unlikely to address the real pressing issues raised by the crisis. 
With the pandemic coinciding with EMFF negotiations for the period of 2021-2027, the crisis must not be used as an excuse to continue funding destructive and unsustainable fishing practices. If these measures are included in the next EMFF budget, it will without doubt have devastating long term impacts on the marine environment. 
We urge European decision-makers not to use the pandemic to reintroduce harmful subsidies. The ongoing crisis should not be exploited to advocate for enhancing the capacity of fisheries or to reintroduce subsidies for their temporary closures with weakened conditions. On the contrary, it should emphasise the need to transition towards sustainable, low-impact fisheries and to protect and restore marine biodiversity. 
Governments should address the health crisis itself and provide emergency rescue measures to avoid the bankruptcies of fishing and aquaculture small businesses, which, according to the EU market observatory for fisheries and aquaculture, are the worst affected. 
These emergency measures must not set a negative precedent and undermine sustainability objectives, and they must be distributed among those in need. In particular, they should:
  • Support solutions for fishers and aquaculture farmers to deal with COVID-19 related problems. For example, where fish markets/auctions are closed, the EMFF should support establishing distance selling – enabling fishers to sell their fresh fish directly to buyers.
  • Tackle unemployment through general national social security programs. There is no case for giving preferential treatment to fishers and aquaculture farmers over others affected by the crisis, such as restaurant or food processing workers. Governments are putting into place emergency measures to deal with wages and unemployment and we support a wider EU solidarity to support national social unemployment systems. 
  • Support for the loss of revenue and the running of small-scale businesses operational costs. The European Commission has adopted a temporary state aid framework to enable Member States to provide aid up to a level of €120,000 per beneficiary in the fishery and aquaculture sectors.
The Commission’s second proposal includes a number of measures that are simply not justified by the outbreak of COVID-19 and risk both unjust discrimination between the diverse stakeholders and the reactivation of environmentally harmful subsidies. In particular, the proposal authorises granting direct subsidies to fishers through temporary cessation and direct subsidies to aquaculture farmers through support for the suspension or reduction of production. Emergency measures to SMEs should not single out fishers and aquaculture incomes over other sectors.
As part of the EU budget, the EMFF is designed to support the Union’s policies. Other instruments should be established outside of the EU budget to support emergencies like the one we are currently in. Subsidies through temporary cessation artificially maintain excessive fishing capacity alongside their associated environmental and economically damaging effects. They do not remove the root causes of overfishing, but rather contribute to maintaining the status quo by rewarding individuals for overfishing. The EU should support moving to low impact fishing and encourage diversification from fisheries activities. This choice from the European Commission seems to be designed to reintroduce environmentally harmful subsidies through the backdoor, under the cover of an emergency reaction to COVID-19.  
BirdLife believes that Member States should be prepared to provide more emergency measures to the fisheries and aquaculture sectors in the future. Regardless of whether future emergencies are political, environmental or of any other nature, each Member State should develop a plan to support the diversification of the sectors to more sustainable economic businesses during emergencies such as, for example, the closure of fisheries.
Finally, as public stimulus packages are being developed and launched, crucial decisions must be taken on where these substantial sums of money should be directed. We believe that the EU needs to continue reinforcing the trajectory towards a resilient and sustainable economy, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the proposed European Green Deal – and this includes future EMFF spending. Channelling stimulus investments in such a way will create long-lasting jobs in clean sectors, both helping the economic recovery of Europe and making it more resilient against future shocks. Public money must be invested in a transparent, viable and sustainable way. 
The COVID-19 pandemic is having dramatic consequences on people and our economy. We are experiencing unprecedented challenges to citizens’ health and livelihoods. It is essential that, during this time of crisis, our leaders issue a strong response to save lives while building a more sustainable, just and resilient economy and society. COVID-19 must not be exploited as an opportunity to abandon the progress being made on the good governance of funding. We must have full transparency about where public money is being spent at all times, allowing the effective participation of civil society in the decision-making process.

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.