Overfishing: A European Problem

Fishing in European Union waters is managed under the Common Fisheries Policy. This policy was initiated in 1983 and has been revised every 10 years since. This EU Fisheries Policy was last reformed in 2014. One of the key landmark reforms was the commitment to end overfishing by 2015, where possible, and by 2020 at the latest, with the objective to restore fish populations to sustainable levels. The reform also provided incentives for operators who fish sustainably and in an environmentally friendly way while keeping the catch numbers within the quota limits advised by scientists. The wasteful practice of discarding bycatch overboard would be banned by 2020, with the aim to encourage fishing methods that would only target the desired species.

Overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea

Bycatch is a term used for the unwanted fish and other marine creatures trapped by commercial fishing nets while fishing for a different species. These include sharks, birds, marine mammals, turtles and corals. About 40% of fish catch worldwide is bycatch.

Global bycatch killed each year includes 300,000 small whales and dolphins, 250,000 endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles and 300,000 seabirds, including 17 albatross species. In total, 38 million tonnes of sea creatures are wastefully caught worldwide with the vast majority of this number thrown back into the sea, either dead or dying (WWF)

EU leaders have taken bold informed decisions, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that were driven by scientific and expert advice and projections. The crisis we face because of climate change and biodiversity loss is far more  existential, and the response should be no less scientific. The EU’s response to the overfishing crisis is the Farm to Fork strategy which is to be the EU solution for the delivery of healthy food which does not harm the environment. There is also in the pipeline a new biodiversity strategy, which should complement and work in tandem with the Farm to Fork Strategy as part of the EU’s Green Deal.

This would lead one to think that the crisis is under control and the EU has it all in hand. Not so. Although the need to transform how we use and produce food has been clear for decades, yet political decisions have been made which have ignored this reality. We have been farming, fishing and consuming as though there were infinite fish populations. This is obviously not the case.

A 2015 WWF study covering 5,829 populations of 1,234 marine species concluded that mismanagement was pushing “the ocean to the brink of collapse”. “There is a massive, massive decrease in species which are critical”, both for the ocean ecosystem and food security for billions of people “The ocean is resilient but there is a limit.” warned Marco Lambertini then Director General of WWF.

The report said populations of fish, marine mammals, birds and reptiles had fallen by half between 1970 and 2012. “This report suggests that billions of animals have been lost from the world’s oceans in my lifetime alone,” Ken Norris, director of science at the Zoological Society of London, said in a statement in 2015. “This is a terrible and dangerous legacy to leave to our grandchildren.”

A report by the United Nations FAO in July 2018 called ‘State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture’, warned that over one third of global marine fish populations are now subject to overfishing at unsustainable levels, with the Mediterranean and Black Seas being the worst affected with 62%.

Notwithstanding all this, Europe’s fish populations will continue to be over-killed despite the longstanding 2020 deadline for setting fishing quotas at sustainable levels. In December 2019 Ministers from across the EU approved higher limits than scientists advised.

62% of fish populations in the Mediterranean and Black Seas are being fished unsustainably – 2015

Quotas for some key species were increased from the previous year, despite advice that they should be brought down. The EU has agreed to overfish several stocks in 2020, with only a vague hint at fishing more sustainably in the future. For example, Celtic Sea cod will be put under heavier fishing pressure than scientists advise, even though their populations are assessed to be at critically low levels. Populations of herring, sole, plaice, ling, tusk, pollack, haddock and seabass will also be overkilled rather than protected.

European policymakers failed to meet their own targets and deadlines on sustainable fishing, under pressure from their national fishing fleets. By 2020, all quotas were meant to be based on the most fish that can be caught without damaging the ability of the species to reproduce and grow. There was to be an end to the wasteful practice of discarding unwanted dead fish at sea. All the talk and commitments by EU Ministers on sustainable fishing made six years ago came to nought.

“Everybody must comply with the law and politicians are no exception,” said Andrea Ripol, fisheries policy officer at Seas at Risk. “Ministers decided today to breach the law, allowing overfishing even beyond 2020. This decision represents a betrayal of European citizens, and breaks their trust.”

“They’re just not getting it,” said Rebecca Hubbard, programme director at Our Fish. “Demonstrating a shocking ignorance of the global biodiversity and climate crisis, the EU Council of Fisheries Ministers refused to follow scientific advice. Ending overfishing would be a rapid, achievable act that would bolster the health of the ocean in the face of the climate crisis, securing futures for coastal communities, as well as being a firm response to calls from EU citizens for climate action.

Sources: WWF, Our Fish, Seas at Risk

This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 28 May 2020