A prosperous and secure fishing industry

Written by Chris Davies on 6 December 2019 in Opinion

Despite past failures of the Common Fisheries Policy, the EU can lead the way on restoring the health of our oceans and safeguarding their biodiversity, argues Chris Davies.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Very few politicians claim fish as their motivation for entering public life. That’s a shame, because we need more people to take a critical look at what goes on beneath the waves.

Our seas cover the majority of the planet’s surface. While world population continues to grow, at around 200,000 every day, our seas are overfished and fish stocks are declining.

To say the least this is not a healthy equation. The abundance and diversity of life in waters across the globe is diminishing as fast as it is on land. The problems are huge but they are not insurmountable.


We are capable of restoring the health of our oceans and can safeguard much of their biodiversity. We can rebuild diminished stocks and fish sustainably and can have a prosperous fishing industry with a secure future. The European Union can lead the way and show that it can be done.

Whether we will in fact do these things is another matter. There is no one to blame for the past failures of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) other than ourselves.

The EU has exclusive competence for setting the rules that govern Europe’s fishing and that are intended to protect biodiversity. Our past track record has not been good.

Over the years we have paid out public money to increase the size of the fishing fleet, and then we have paid public money to reduce its size. The results of our overfishing are all too clearly revealed by the statistics and the year by year decline in fish landed at our ports.

"The European Union can lead the way and show that it can be done. Whether we will in fact do these things is another matter"

Yet we have reason for hope. Sustainability is now the watchword. The principle lies at the heart of the CFP that we revised in 2013 and in which we set the goal of ensuring that all commercial stocks should be fished above maximum sustainable yield by 2020.

I have no doubt that the European Commission’s team in DG Mare is committed to achieving this ambition and good progress has been made. As of now 59 of 81 scientifically assessed stocks waters are being fished sustainably, and an increase in the figure is likely to be announced in the next few weeks.

There has been a small but encouraging growth in fish biomass and the majority of Europe’s fishing fleets are now profitable, and in some cases very profitable. However, not for one second should we think this progress sufficient. Our ambitions are far from being realised.

Scientific advice about the state of fish stocks is neither comprehensive nor still fully respected by politicians who continue to ignore the simple reality that fish numbers will not miraculously grow if overfishing continues.

Small scale and artisan fishermen get a raw deal compared to the owners of large vessels. Marine protected areas get declared by Member States but arrangements for their governance are not put in place.

The landing obligation is not being implemented or enforced, so huge quantities of fish are still being killed and discarded. Massive overfishing continues in the Mediterranean Sea, and pollution in the Baltic adds to its other problems.

Governments bow to pressures from commercial interests and short term thinking and sometimes downright greed are the biggest obstacles we face. Any complacency and satisfaction I might have felt about the progress being made has been shaken in the past few days.

Improved management of our fisheries is supposed to be secured by the introduction of multi-annual plans tailored to individual circumstances. A report from the Pew Charitable Trust, ‘Fit for Purpose?’, examined the Baltic Sea plan which was the first to be introduced and suggests that its original ambitions will not be met.

"I refuse to be downhearted. The EU’s collective intentions are good. We have the ability to make a difference for the better, and in Virginijus Sinkevicius a new commissioner who wants to demonstrate this in practice"

Worse, it claims that the damaging compromises made to secure its political approval have been carried over into subsequent plans. Meanwhile EU negotiators at the November ICCAT conference on Atlantic tuna and associated species played a part in blocking a deal to protect the shortfin Mako shark.

Caught commercially, and now severely endangered, the fish does not breed until it is 21 years old and scientists say that even in the best circumstances it will take till 2070 for stocks to recover.

The EU had good arguments for the position it took but negotiators had admitted to MEPs that for the conference to fail to agree any sort of deal would be a terrible outcome.

With Mako shark worth more than €3,000 per tonne in Spain the suspicion will linger that financial priorities prevailed. At least we know the value placed upon the potential extinction of a species. I refuse to be downhearted.

The EU’s collective intentions are good. We have the ability to make a difference for the better, and in Virginijus Sinkevicius a new commissioner who wants to demonstrate this in practice.

We should set our sights high, rebuild fish stocks towards the levels of the past and not only safeguard, but promote the rich biodiversity of our seas.

Short term compromises must be avoided if our fishing industry is to have long term success. We do indeed need more politicians who are motivated by their ambitions for the future of fish.

About the author

Chris Davies (UK, RE) is chair of Parliament’s Fisheries Committee

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