The conclusion of the December meeting of the European Union’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting should have been monumental, with catch limits set that would end overfishing in 2020, fulfilling the aims of the 2013 reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. Instead, as has often been the case in EU fisheries policy in recent decades, ministers failed to live up to their promises.
Despite the legal deadline and other imperatives – many of which were discussed by EU leaders at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid – the EU will overfish several stocks in 2020, with only a vague promise to fish more sustainably in future. Stocks like 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.
What happens next is unclear. But the failure to meet the deadline risks damaging public trust in the EU to meet its own targets, leading to finger-pointing between the EU institutions, and worsening the outlook for already-vulnerable stocks and for the productivity of European fisheries.
The EU has a new Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, whose mission is to put fisheries at the heart of the European Green Deal and lead the way on international ocean governance. Accomplishing that requires following scientific advice on fisheries management and adhering to EU law and international commitments.
Despite the missed deadline to end overfishing, 2020 remains an important milestone year for the Commissioner and for the other commitments EU leaders have made on the world stage. Ministers have now made meeting these commitments harder for the EU, reinforcing the short-term governance that has plagued fisheries policy for years.
As the Commissioner and other EU leaders turn their attention to problems more complex than overfishing – namely climate change and threats to biodiversity – fisheries policymakers now must focus urgently on mainstreaming their decisions. And this raises a question: Will fisheries ministers continue to block sustainable policies even as the new Commission starts the decade with a purposeful effort to fix ocean problems? The answer will partly depend upon whether EU institutions can work together to show global leadership, starting with fisheries policies.
This article was updated in December 2019 to improve clarity.
Andrew Clayton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in North-Western Europe.