After Missing Deadline to End Overfishing, EU Faces Tough Decisions

Ministers must follow scientific advice to catch up on catch limits

After Missing Deadline to End Overfishing, EU Faces Tough Decisions
School of fish
Getty Images

European Union leaders have put a new Green Deal at the top of their agenda for the coming years, pledging to set ambitious objectives to preserve Europe’s natural environment and give industries a sustainable future—a track that leaders hope to pursue once the COVID-19 situation improves and preparations for 2021 catch decisions resume.

Now that the 2020 deadline to end overfishing—agreed upon in the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)—has passed, I can draw conclusions about how successful decision makers have been in living up to a host of promises that were made to improve sustainability when the CFP was reformed in 2013. One thing is immediately clear: In almost every cycle of implementing the CFP, our leaders have not taken opportunities to deliver on their commitments.

The outcome of the recent December Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting of fisheries ministers felt all too familiar. Echoing previous years’ announcements, Council officials trumpeted the progress made towards ending overfishing and the “balance” they achieved between environmental and socio-economic needs, even when the catch limits that ministers set did not always match the scientific advice. The emphasis was on continued incremental progress: Ministers had taken some further steps towards sustainability. It was almost as if the legal deadline to achieve sustainable exploitation of EU fish stocks was far in the future and this was just another year of hopeful transition towards more concrete improvements.

This optimistic tone was not shared by others. The CFP actually set a deadline to end overfishing by 2015 “where possible”, with 2020 being the final cut-off date. Yet catch limits for 2020 were set in excess of scientific advice for several fish populations, some of which are heavily depleted, such as Celtic Sea cod. Around 48 per cent of the limits set by ministers for 2020 appear to be higher than the publicly available scientific advice, a worsening of the previous year’s figure (42 per cent), despite the missed deadline.

To be fair, this figure, while shocking, doesn’t tell the whole story of the underlying trade-offs and complexities that ministers faced. Scientists advised cuts in catches for the majority of stocks, some of them very severe, including advising zero catches in several cases (such as Celtic Sea cod). Those drastic recommendations—which signalled trouble both for the state of stocks and socio-economic prospects of the fishing industry—reflected a failure by decision makers to take the necessary steps in the years leading up to the 2020 deadline. That long period of putting off action that could have achieved the CFP’s objective left ministers with some painful and costly decisions to make at the eleventh hour.

So, faced with the need to make cuts across the board, ministers indeed made some difficult decisions. They committed to large cuts in catches for species such as North Sea cod and belatedly turned their attention to the measures needed to initiate recovery of the most depleted stocks. The Council’s traditional all-night duration reflected efforts to resist the inflation of quotas beyond the levels that scientists advised. But with so many drastic cuts needed, ministers proved unwilling to fully apply the scientific advice, negotiating “compromises” that will maintain high fishing pressures in 2020 and that don’t fully meet the requirements of the CFP.

The lack of transparency in official reporting makes it hard for me to judge how much work remains to end overfishing. The EU Commission released official figures that paint a positive picture but focus only on a subset of stocks, showing an increasing number of limits set in line with advice—but no overall assessment compared with the legal requirement and the 2020 deadline. Pew’s analysis suggests that ministers made more progress on stocks with the most comprehensive data but took greater risks and allowed higher fishing pressures on stocks with less-certain status. That goes squarely against the precautionary approach required in law.

While the EU is making important commitments to a more sustainable future, it’s crucial that it lives up to promises made in 2013, when the CFP was reformed. With the 2020 deadline passed and overfishing persisting, decision makers have given themselves more unnecessary headaches by delaying the recovery of fish stocks and the productive yields that result from good fisheries management. Communicating this shortfall clearly and fixing the remaining problem cases must be the priority during 2020 so that fisheries policy can meet the diverse other challenges on the horizon.

Andrew Clayton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in North-Western Europe.