European Commission Lays Out 2016 Plan to End Overfishing

There is a saying in the business world: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” 

So each year, the European Commission starts the process of setting the fishing limits for the following year by publishing its Communication on Fishing Opportunities, which includes an assessment of the health of European Union fish stocks and their likely resilience to fishing. On June 2, the Commission published its latest communication for 2016 and launched a related consultation seeking public input.

The communication reiterates the Commission’s ambition to fully implement the EU’s reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which includes concrete commitments to end overfishing by 2015 where possible—and by 2020 at the latest.

Many stocks are recovering, but nearly half—48 percent—in the north-east Atlantic and adjacent waters are still overfished, according to the communication. That means fishing pressure needs to be reduced to allow these stocks to recover to the levels required by the CFP.

So how does the Commission propose to do this? The communication states that the Commission will propose 2016 fishing limits in line with maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for all stocks for which such advice exists. This would be a significant step toward ending EU overfishing.

The Commission says it would consider a more flexible stance only in cases where such limits would result in a significant reduction in fishing and seriously jeopardise the sustainability of the fleet involved. Even in these cases, the communication says, there must be incremental progress toward achieving MSY exploitation levels.

However, the document does not include information on biomass levels—a gauge of the health of fish stocks—that would help measure progress toward rebuilding stocks, a fundamental CFP objective. Furthermore, the Commission does not make clear how it intends to meet the objective of restoring biomass levels above those that can produce MSY in the case of 25 stocks covered by a 2013 agreement between the Commission and the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council, made up of ministers from the 28 member states. The agreement was intended to keep fishing opportunities stable.

In December 2014, fisheries ministers set fishing limits that in many cases exceeded scientifically recommended levels. With publication of this communication for 2016, the Commission has set itself the challenge of steering ministers to agree to sustainable fishing limits in line with the CFP when the Fisheries Council meets in October and December.

The communication is just the start of the process of setting 2016 fishing limits. Later in the year, the Commission will propose individual fishing limits for each stock. Member states will consider these before ministers meet in Council to set the actual limits. This is a fundamental part of the CFP and the clearest test of whether ministers intend to end EU overfishing without delay.

The Commission has the responsibility and opportunity to lead them to that decision. This week’s announcement also launched a period of consultation. That means the public has an ideal opportunity to remind the Commission why it is so important to end overfishing—and why it is so crucial to measure before you manage.

Uta Bellion directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ European marine programme.