European Commission Releases Proposal for Multi-Annual Plan for the North Sea

Negotiations provide a chance to end the short-term focus of fisheries management in the EU

In July, a multi-annual plan (MAP) for certain fish stocks in the Baltic Sea entered into force, the first of many plans for European regions that will set out the mechanisms to meet the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) for sustainable, high-yield fisheries.

Last year, the process got off to a worrying start when the European Commission proposal for fishing in Baltic waters fell short of the requirements set in the reformed CFP. Fisheries ministers in Council  attempted to water down that legislation further, but members of the European Parliament, in the end, limited the damage.

The result is a final plan that still allows overfishing in certain cases and that places greater emphasis on flexibility than on strict adherence to the law’s requirements. That outcome highlights the importance of efforts to ensure that subsequent MAPs do not suffer from the same weaknesses.

In early August, the European Commission published its MAP proposal  for North Sea fisheries, launching the negotiation process again. How will leaders of the European Union reach agreement this time?

The Commission has chosen pragmatism over ambition, using many components of the Baltic MAP in the North Sea proposal. The general aims may match the CFP’s goal to recover stocks to healthy levels, but the details tell another story.

The proposal groups stocks into seven categories, but recovery objectives for many of the categories are lower than required by the CFP. And when it comes to the important detail on levels of fishing, similar ranges to those in the Baltic MAP are proposed, with the opportunity to overfish in vaguely defined circumstances.

As the potentially lengthy process gets underway, how can negotiators improve the proposal to deliver healthy, sustainable, and profitable North Sea fisheries?

Pew has recommended that the North Sea MAP include:

  • Fishing mortality ranges that allow all stocks to recover above levels that can produce what is known as the maximum sustainable yield.
  • The same recovery objectives for all stocks.
  • Clearer requirements for the use of exceptions.
  • Explicit safeguards to ensure a high probability that recovery objectives can be achieved.

The limited progress that EU fisheries ministers have made so far in setting fishing limits that truly meet the CFP objective to restore fish stocks  underscores the need to get this right in long-term strategies.

Negotiations over the North Sea plan are likely to feature the same pleas for “flexibility” that we see from fisheries ministers as they set annual fishing limits in the Council. Now is the time then for the European Parliament, the European Commission, and all of us watching to guide them back to the commitments they made to end overfishing when reforming the CFP.  

Andrew Clayton directs Pew’s efforts to end overfishing in north-western Europe.

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