Michael Berendt's blog

The word “sustainability” can cover a multitude of interpretations, but when it comes to fisheries policy there is no ambiguity: today’s overfishing means tomorrow’s collapsing fish stocks. Until recently the Common Fisheries Policy has been a classic case of unsustainability, a stand-off between short term political pressures on the one hand and scientific evidence warning of the destruction of Europe’s fishery resources on the other. But at least change is in the air. Rio +20 may prove a real catalyst for reform.

NGOs have condemned the outcome of the Rio meeting for its lack of specific commitments, but I would subscribe to the view of businessGreen that the conference conclusions could have a far-reaching impact on the way that governments and business approach the whole sustainability question. On fisheries the commitments are substantial.

Of course words must now be translated into action, but there are signs of change in Europe. The EU fisheries council earlier this month set a course for a more sustainable fisheries policy. When the European Parliament discusses fisheries reform in September 2012, using the limited extra powers granted by the Lisbon Treaty, MEPs can be expected to maintain pressure on the Council for an enlightened policy to take effect from 2013. Rio will be an important incentive for change.

The June 12 Fisheries Council commitments are still pretty vague. They called for maximum sustainable yields for different stocks to be set “by 2015 where possible” and “by 2020 at the latest”. Multiannual plans for fisheries management would be used to manage specific stocks – bearing in mind that Lisbon introduced shared national-EU competence for such management. And the banning of discards, whereby fish caught beyond the quota limits are thrown back dead into the sea, would (eventually) be introduced.

According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a pioneer campaigner who has gathered nearly a million signatures against discards, about half of the fish caught in the North Sea is currently dumped at sea because it fails to meet by-catch rules or exceeds quota. His campaign has been remarkably effective in reinforcing the Commission’s ambitions for change in fisheries policy.

The language used in the Rio declaration (paragraphs 158-177) combines environmental and economic measures to protect oceans and seas. On fisheries it commits the parties “to urgently develop and implement science-based management plans, including by reducing or suspending fishing catch and effort commensurate with the status of the stock” and to “further commit to enhance action to manage by-catch, discards, and other adverse ecosystem impacts from fisheries including by eliminating destructive fishing practices”.

Fisheries policy will now take on a different aspect as accession negotiations with Iceland move into their most difficult phase. Ten of 18 chapters have now been negotiated, fisheries still remain. The prospect of a reformed CFP will be key for Iceland, which will surely settle for nothing less than a firm commitment to change. “A fishing nation like Iceland is something that the European Union hasn’t encountered before,” says Iceland foreign minister Ossur Skarphethinsson – a claim which the Norway might dispute. Indeed, fisheries and energy were the two issues which led the Norwegians to reject entry in the early ‘70s.

There are other issues where Iceland will no doubt want assurances. For example, a situation where quotas allocated to one EU country can be bought up by operators from elsewhere, as where Spanish vessels have registered in British ports and so qualified for British quota allocations, is of course consistent with freedom of establishment, but does little to respect an initial purpose of quotas, ensuring fishing opportunity to locally based fishermen. A greater emphasis on regional management may be the way ahead here.

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