Successes and Shortfalls of EU’s Common Fisheries Policy Hold Lessons for the Future

By considering broader ecosystem, managers can boost ocean resilience and industry prospects

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Successes and Shortfalls of EU’s Common Fisheries Policy Hold Lessons for the Future
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As political leaders in Europe make ever more ambitious commitments to encourage green growth and a sustainable future, it’s worth looking back to see how prior large-scale sustainability initiatives turned out. Pew’s report on the “Lessons From Implementation of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)” tells the story of what happened after one such set of ambitious commitments.

When European Union institutions agreed on much-needed reforms in 2013, campaigners and the public rightly celebrated leaders’ commitments. The law required an end to overfishing, a ban on the discarding of dead fish, and other critical changes to pave the way to sustainable fishing. Pew has followed the implementation of the CFP since its adoption in 2013, and summarised here are some of our observations on the policy’s successes, failures, and its prospects for the future.

The starkest conclusion is that the policy aims agreed to in 2013 have not been fully delivered. The data shows that a sizeable minority of fish populations are still exploited aggressively, often at rates that exceed what scientists advise. The European Commission routinely issues positive figures in its  official progress reports, based on landings of the largest commercial stocks, but overfishing still persists across other stocks. The CFP included a soft deadline to end overfishing in 2015 and a harder one to end it in 2020, both of which passed with only gradual improvements.

Although EU fisheries managers seemed to roll out the CFP’s requirement to land nearly all catches—the aforementioned ban on discarding—on time, it is unclear if discarding has fully ceased in practice. And although the CFP demanded other ecosystem protections as part of the reformed policy, the management measures that followed, such as multi-annual plans, included few such safeguards.

As to why EU law can be selectively implemented or why decision-makers would vote for measures that diminish both fish populations and industry profit, the answers lie in the dynamics of decision-making. European leaders’ political will to make long-term commitments that would help the ocean and fishers seemed to fade when practical decisions in the short term—on things such as annual catch limits—needed to be made.

Specifically, ministers in the Council of the EU often chose to mould the rules around the status quo of fishing activity rather than require changes to it. And even though those politicians were required to use fisheries management tools to achieve wider environmental commitments, they often chose not to do so: Fisheries and environmental rules have historically been fully disconnected from each other, which, in essence, prevented a genuine ecosystem approach to fishing policy and, worse, allowed those decisions to work against sustainability aims.

Unclear reporting on progress, and the lack of transparency in the process to put these decisions into law, also hampered scrutiny, something the Commission at least now seems keen to address. The need to agree on catch limits with non-EU countries—which now include the UK—adds more complexity to the process.

Despite all this, decision-makers have continued to bring fishing pressure overall closer to scientific advice, and fish populations have responded to these improvements, on average growing in size. This growth, in turn, has helped to bolster fishing industry profits, with the Commission’s data showing average profitability close to all-time highs. Still, these positive trends mask many less-promising outcomes, for example, heavily overfished cod stocks and/or sectors of the industry in specific regions such as the Baltic proving less profitable. The overarching lesson is that sustainable, science-based management leads to a virtuous circle in which everyone benefits.

Adopting policies that account for the complexity of interactions—between species and between fisheries and the wider ecosystem—is essential to stabilising fisheries management so it is resilient to shocks, which then minimises the risk of the boom-and-bust cycles that result from a short-term focus. So, even though the EU and UK have placed an ecosystem approach at the heart of their legislation on fisheries, they’ve done so without much sign of the more sophisticated management approach this demands.

Taking this approach will be much more important as European fisheries face future threats, whether from ecosystem changes or economic shocks. The tools to succeed are already in place. The lessons from the implementation of the CFP so far—good and bad—are instructive for fisheries managers everywhere, and perhaps also for leaders making similar commitments in other areas of public policy.

Andrew Clayton leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in Northwestern Europe.

Birds above fishing catch
Birds above fishing catch

Lessons From EU's Common Fisheries Policy

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Under the European Union’s current Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), 2020 had been targeted as the year to achieve a major change in fisheries management: sustainable exploitation rates in place for all stocks. Despite progress, the EU did not meet this goal.