10 Reasons European Governments Must Act Promptly to End Overfishing

A deadline to set science-based fishing limits in line with the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy by 2020 has already passed


European Union fishing ministers and officials from other states bordering the Atlantic Ocean will meet this autumn to agree fishing quotas for stocks in the Atlantic and in the North Sea for next year.

Under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, member states were legally bound to end overfishing “by 2015 where possible” and “at the latest by 2020.” However, several North-East Atlantic species—including multiple cod stocks—are still subject to overfishing.

But decision makers still have the power and responsibility to turn the tide—by setting quotas that end overfishing—so everyone can reap the benefits of sustainable fisheries.

The 10 reasons detailed here underscore why it’s so important that fisheries ministers, both in the EU and beyond, lead on ending overfishing:

Overfishing in Europe

1. Fish stocks would be allowed to recover.

Too many assessed stocks in or near European waters remain outside safe biological limits. Ending overfishing would finally allow these stocks to rebuild and thrive.

Overfishing in Europe

2. Fishers would benefit.

Healthy fish stocks contribute to a more stable business environment and require less time and fuel for fishing. More profitable fisheries in turn reduce the need for taxpayers to support the industry through subsidies. A 2016 study indicated that ending overfishing in the Northeast Atlantic alone could potentially create additional annual revenue of €4.6 billion for the EU fishing fleet  and support more jobs in the sector.

Overfishing in Europe

3. Doing so would help restore our marine environment.

Fishing activities can take a toll on the marine environment beyond the removal of fish. Among the common negative impacts are damage to the seafloor and corals, unintended catch of animals such as seabirds and turtles, and pollution. Healthy fish stocks also require less intensive fishing activity, limiting harm.

Overfishing in Europe

4. Europeans could eat more locally caught and sustainable fish.

Many European countries depend heavily on seafood imports to meet demand.  This also has repercussions for developing countries where fish is a key source of animal protein for large parts of the population.

Overfishing in Europe

5. The ocean would be more resilient.

The ocean is under a variety of stresses, ranging from changing water temperatures to pollution and acidification. Well-managed fish stocks play a key role in keeping marine ecosystems robust and represent an investment in the future because they can help the ocean resist these kinds of stresses.

Overfishing in Europe

6. Fisheries management would be easier.

Managing fisheries with a high likelihood of collapse is complicated, risky, and demanding. It requires detailed and timely information. Healthy fisheries, on the other hand, are less sensitive to changes, uncertainties, or mistakes in data, making management easier.

Overfishing in Europe

7. In the EU, it’s the law.

In 2013, EU decision makers agreed on a reformed Common Fisheries Policy that requires an end to overfishing by 2015 where possible, and by 2020 at the latest for all stocks. By failing to end overfishing in line with this timeline and legal requirement, European institutions have delayed the process for restoring fish stocks and marine ecosystems.

Overfishing in Europe

8. It would bring greater transparency.

Setting fishing limits that do not exceed scientific advice would make fisheries management more rational and predictable. Discussions could centre on maximising the socio-economic benefits of healthy fisheries.

Overfishing in Europe

9. Case studies around the world—and closer to home—show the benefits.

Other countries, such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, have made major progress towards ending overfishing and are starting to reap the benefits. The EU has its own examples, such as hake in northern European waters,  which prove that it is possible to end overfishing and illustrate the potential gains.

Overfishing in Europe

10. Decision makers have both the power and the responsibility to do so.

Many contemporary problems, such as climate change, are extremely challenging to address, but ending overfishing depends largely on better decisions by fisheries ministers, both within the EU and beyond. Political will is needed to implement management reforms and to set fishing limits that do not exceed scientific advice.

Too many assessed stocks in EU waters remain outside safe biological limits. Ending overfishing would finally allow these stocks to rebuild and thrive.

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


  1. J. Guillen et al., “Sustainability Now or Later? Estimating the Benefits of Pathways to Maximum Sustainable Yield for EU Northeast Atlantic Fisheries,” Marine Policy 72 (2016): 40-47, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X1630149X.
  2. European Commission, “European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products, the EU Fish Market - 2019 Edition” (2019), https://op.europa.eu/s/n7Yr.
  3. International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, “Hake (Merluccius merluccius) in Subareas 4, 6, and 7, and Divisions 3.A, 8.A–B, and 8.D, Northern Stock (Greater North Sea, Celtic Seas, and the Northern Bay of Biscay)” (in report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019), https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.4759.
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