The European Union has the world’s third-largest fishing fleet and is the biggest importer of fish products. It wields considerable influence over global marine policies, a status that has often encouraged the over-exploitation of wild fish stocks. The heavily fished waters of north-western Europe—the North, Celtic, and Irish seas and the Atlantic Ocean west of Scotland and Ireland—serve as a testing ground for implementation of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) throughout Europe and by EU vessels globally. This region is geologically diverse, ranging from the deep fjords and sheer cliffs of the westerly coastlines to the sandy beaches and wide, productive mud flats farther south.
The waters boast a rich and diverse mix of environments and wildlife that have shaped the cultures along their shores. For more than a century, the fish stocks in Europe’s north-western waters have been severely over-exploited. That has left many populations, such as cod, low or depleted, and has devastated numerous fishing communities that depended on these stocks for their livelihoods.
Despite putting in place a CFP in 1983 to manage European fish stocks sustainably, EU fisheries ministers have set fishing limits on average 40 per cent above scientific advice for the past 12 years. Calls to reduce fishing pressure have been ignored for too long in favour of short-term economic and political gains. However, as a result of sustained pressure for ambitious reform, EU decision-makers agreed in 2013 to a far reaching reform of the CFP, including a commitment to end overfishing and restore fish stocks.