The European Union is required by law to end overfishing in its waters by 2020 but has a long way to go to achieve that, despite EU fisheries ministers’ claims that their agreed 2019 limits for more than 140 stocks show progress toward sustainability.
Complicating the push to end overfishing, which is mandated under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), is a highly politicised EU fisheries management process that is often negotiated behind closed doors and is not always transparent or fully explained.
As the institution responsible for implementing EU policy, the European Commission should be the source of reliable information; however, comprehensive data on the relationship between catch limit decisions and meeting the requirements of the CFP are often hard to come by. This has been exacerbated by shifts in the benchmarks that the Commission uses to measure and announce progress.
Each June the Commission publishes a fisheries communication, which in recent years has included performance on benchmarks such as average fishing pressure, catch limits that the Commission considers to be set in line with scientific reference points, and stock sizes compared with 15 years ago. While useful, these measures do not always address the legal requirements that EU institutions must meet.
After the European Council decisions, the Commission promotes a list of limits that it claims have been set in line with the legal requirements of the CFP. In December, the Commission claimed that more than two-thirds of stocks (59 of 82) would meet this test for 2019. However, the criteria used to populate this list have remained unclear, and critiques of the Commission’s list have highlighted errors and important omissions—for example, an estimate of how much work remains to end overfishing.
To help set catch limits, the EU benefits from—and pays for—advice from respected, independent scientists yet continues to set a significant proportion above those experts’ advice. For example, the Commission’s Scientific, Technical, and Economic Committee for Fisheries reported in 2018 that around 41 percent of stocks were not fished in line with the CFP sustainability benchmark in 2016.
Further confusing matters, and often the public, the Commission in recent years has favoured using an assessment based on tonnage of catches, for example reporting in 2018 that a very high volume of catches will come from limits set in line with scientific advice.
Following the Council meeting in December, Karmenu Vella, the commissioner for environment, maritime affairs, and fisheries, further refined this tonnage benchmark, announcing that “almost 99 percent of landings … managed exclusively by the EU will be fished at sustainable levels” (emphasis added). That’s a subtle but critical distinction, suggesting that the Commission is excluding limits agreed with non-EU parties when calculating progress. Vella’s claim is difficult to validate as the Commission has not published the supporting data.
The constant switching between measures of progress leaves observers unclear on the actual state of EU fisheries and trying to reconcile different datasets as the benchmarks change from year to year. Using tonnage data suggests that the job is pretty much done, yet ministers still set a significant number of catch limits higher than scientific advice.
Analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that 41 percent of the limits agreed in December’s Council meeting were set above the level scientists advised for 2019. This is an improvement on the 44 percent figure for 2018 but far short of what’s needed to meet the 2020 deadline.
Greater transparency would help. For example, the Commission could publish a list of the catch limits that exceed scientific advice so that member States can focus on ending overfishing. Ministers could explain why they set some limits higher than scientists advised. If the Council has access to new scientific information, this should be made public and reviewed through the same rigorous process that the bulk of advice to the EU is put through. If ministers are making economic arguments that overfishing in the short term is good for business, jobs, or food security, the public should hear and test these arguments.
The EU is slowly improving its fisheries management. To ensure observers can verify that progress and to improve governance credibility, decision makers must make the data and arguments underlying their policies public. Doing that, and heeding scientific advice in setting catch limits, will go a long way toward raising ministers’ credibility and ending overfishing in EU waters by 2020.
Andrew Clayton directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end overfishing in North-Western Europe.