Too many hooks and nets are systematically reducing the fish stocks on which we rely for a profitable fishing industry, a reliable food source and for healthy oceans.  

More than 80 percent of assessed European fish stocks are overexploited and 30 percent are outside safe biological limits, cautioned the European Commission in the recent Green Paper for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The culprit is not hard to find.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization ( notes that a fishing fleet’s capacity to harvest more fish than nature can replace is an important, or even the principal, cause of overfishing. And the EU commissioner responsible for fisheries, Joe Borg, agrees.  Earlier this year, he stated, “Most of our problems stem from fleet overcapacity, which is … a main driver for overfishing.”

While the EU has made efforts to regulate fishing capacity as far back as 1983, when it implemented a series of plans that sought a “balance between fishing capacity to be deployed by the production facilities … and the [fish] stocks,” fishery management in the EU is still failing.

Despite the reduction in the size of the EU fleet, overcapacity continues to be a problem as technology has made ships — and fishing — more efficient.  In an ironic twist, the EU and its member states continue to fuel fleet overcapacity by subsidising the fishing sector.

The most recent assessment in 1995 found EU fleet capacity to be 40 percent over sustainable levels. Reform in 2002 shifted responsibility for fleet management to member states, requiring them to report annually on their “efforts during the previous year to achieve a sustainable balance between fleet capacity and available fishing opportunities.” But a recent report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy for the Pew Environment Group (the conservation arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts) indicates poor compliance with this requirement.

The report reveals that in 2005 only 11 of the 22 countries submitted their annual reports on time. The information provided was patchy, making assessment of overcapacity levels difficult, if not impossible.

In 2006, not only did the same problems still plague the documents, but most member states did not bother to evaluate their fishing capacity in relation to fishery resources. In 2007, only 12 countries submitted an analysis on time. The United Kingdom, in particular, was six months late, preventing its inclusion in the Commission’s summary.

In 2008, in response to a written question by MEP Paulo Casaca of Portugal, Commissioner Borg clarified that measuring the balance between fishing capacity and fishing opportunities requires detailed data for each fishery, accounting for both biological and economic factors. Only the 2006 Danish report included such an assessment. The reports of the remaining member states merely provided information on the trends in fishing capacity or fishing effort, not making a clear statement on the balance between fleet and fishing opportunities.

It is said that “if you won’t measure it; you won’t manage it.” Fishery managers need to know the capacities of fleets, the size and composition of fish populations and the basic rates of harvest. Without such information, fishermen could easily fish stocks to the point of collapse without knowing it. Not even subsidies will be able to keep fishermen afloat if fish stocks continue to plummet.

With 30 percent of assessed European fish stocks outside safe biological limits, the action and inaction of member states over the past years shows a distinct indifference toward a valuable marine resource and to those who depend on it.

A joint study by the World Bank and the FAO in 2008, “The Sunken Billions,” revealed that inadequate fisheries management costs 50 billion US dollars globally per year in lost opportunity. Member states need to take overfishing and fishing overcapacity seriously for the benefit of all.

We may dispute the exact percent of stocks in trouble, but it is clear that the Common Fisheries Policy has failed, that European fisheries need significantly improved management and that we must reduce fishing capacity. Accurately reporting the EU fishing fleet’s capacity is a first step in achieving that. If we fail, we risk squandering a once bountiful, self-renewing marine resource.

Uta Bellion is Director of the Pew Environment Group’s European Marine Programme.

NOTE:  Next month irish environment plans on publishing an analysis of the EU CFP by staff at the Pew Environment Group

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