European seas are emptying of valuable fish – more than 80 percent of assessed fish stocks in EU waters are overfished and 30 percent are outside safe biological limits. As a result, the fishing sector is suffering and fishing communities struggle to make a living. The long-term environmental consequences are yet to be determined. However all is not lost, as a recently launched reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is up for completion by 2012. Fish stocks can be rebuilt and the fishing sector can once again thrive, at least in the medium and long term.

Be warned though, this isn’t the first attempt at reform. The most recent occurred in 2002. The Commission then cited “dwindling fish stocks, diminishing catches, too many vessels chasing too few fish, steady job losses and a lack of effective control and sanctions” among the chronic problems facing European fisheries.

Five years after the 2002 reform, however, the European Court of Auditors still identified “poor profitability and steadily declining employment” in the fishing sector, and many of the problems observed then by the European Commission still plague the industry.

Because fisheries policy affects so many individuals and communities so deeply, it is essential that they participate in the discussion to get this reform right. Fortunately, in June 2009 environmental, social, consumer and development organisations across Europe came together to form a coalition, OCEAN2012, to widen the debate and seek the involvement of all stakeholders.

Severe overfishing is contributing to the size of fish populations falling far short of the capacity to harvest them. Indeed, overcapacity — too many vessels, too much time to fish and fishing gear that removes too many fish from a population — has plagued the industry for years. Shockingly, many EU Member States, rather than trying to limit this, are subsidising it even more. Efforts to curb capacity have been largely unsuccessful, as ever more advanced fishing technology continues to boost the capability, resulting in ongoing overfishing and illegal fishing.

Once fishing capacity has been restricted, access to fishing rights – who should be allowed to fish, where, when and how – becomes a pressing and political question. Currently decisions on the allocation of fishing rights are based on historic catches. Allocation should instead centre on a set of transparent criteria which encourage legal and less destructive fishing practices, low fuel consumption, greater employment, good working conditions and high quality products. This would create positive competition amongst fishers, with those who meet the criteria earning priority access.

In addition, the EU needs to collaborate still further with those developing countries with whom it has fisheries agreements. These agreements have so far not had “a significant impact on the fight against poverty and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals” according to the EU Commission. A framework for sustainable fisheries management with effective control and enforcement in all waters, including those of developing countries where EU fishing vessels are active, is necessary to preserve the health of this shared resource. The EU needs to support this work with a range of incentives benefiting fishers and communities in developing countries and EU citizens.

However, the principal failure of the Common Fisheries Policy to maintain healthy fish populations results from structures for decision making that have simply proven counterproductive. Even very detailed management decisions are being made at the highest political level, influenced by short-term economic interest rather than guided by a vision of how to ensure long-term sustainable fisheries.

In recent years, catch limits set by the EU’s Council of Fisheries Ministers have exceeded scientific advice by an average of 48 percent, resulting in the severe overfishing of a number of valuable stocks.  The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament must focus on the over-arching vision and objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy, leaving the detailed implementation to more appropriate, decentralised bodies.

Unlike previous reforms of the Common Fisheries Policy, this one must succeed if the crisis facing EU fish stocks and the fisheries sector is to be stemmed. There is clear evidence that continuous overfishing has resulted in less productive fisheries and job loss.  Without enough fish, the EU’s vibrant coastal communities will wither and fishers’ livelihoods will all but vanish. To get this reform right we need to involve everybody affected, not just those few parties who have a vested interest. The Common Fisheries Policy means too much, to too many Europeans, to be allowed to fail.

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

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