Turning the tide

Decades of overfishing, pollution and climate change have made the ocean a fragile environment and it needs our protection, writes João Aguiar Machado.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock

By João Aguiar Machado

23 Apr 2019

What do oceans and personal data have in common?

Not much, apart that over the term of this Commission and Parliament, both have climbed the ladder from being niche issues, of interest only to an in-crowd, to reach the pinnacle of the European public debate.

And the EU is quickly becoming a world leader in protecting them both.


Our ocean needs our protection; decades of overfishing, pollution or climate change have made this blue giant a highly-fragile environment.

Two thirds of global fish stocks are in bad shape. Eight million tons of plastic rubbish are dumped into our seas every year.

Sea temperature is rising at an alarming rate, particularly in the polar areas, with habitat loss, acidification and changing fish stock patterns as a result.

At the European Commission, in recent years we have invested heavily in turning the tide - figuratively speaking - starting with fisheries.

“This year, almost 99 percent of the stocks in the North East Atlantic and Baltic Sea, managed by the EU alone, will be fished sustainably”

In 2009, the EU fishing fleet was barely profitable. This year, almost 99 percent of the stocks in the North East Atlantic and Baltic Sea, managed by the EU alone, will be fished sustainably.

Both fish and fishermen stand to gain. In 2016, the industry registered record high net profits of €1.3bn. This proves that conservation and economic development go hand in hand.

One of our main achievements in fisheries management is the so-called landing obligation.

Every year, worldwide, 30 million tons of fish are thrown back into the sea - most don’t survive. The landing obligation puts a stop to this wasteful practice.

From January 2019, EU vessels must bring all catches ashore, without exemption.

We have also taken other measures to reduce unwanted catches and protect juvenile fish and spawning grounds.

This includes rules on what kind of gear fishermen can use, where and when they may fish as well as other measures to protect marine ecosystems and habitats.

“The oceans are an abundant source of renewable energy, indispensable for delivering a zero-emission EU economy”

Our ocean economy is so much more than fish. It also covers traditional sectors such as tourism and shipbuilding as well as emerging areas such as ocean energy, blue biotechnology or desalination.

Development of the EU’s “blue economy” is rapid; it is set to double by 2030, turning over more than €1 trillion.

By accelerating sustainable blue investments and strengthening ocean knowledge, we enable our companies to excel in the global ocean economy.

Our commitment to healthy seas also reaches beyond our own shores.

Thanks to the EU’s leadership, responsible ocean management now features prominently on the international agenda.

At a time where international cooperation is under increasing pressure, the EU remains firmly committed to working with other countries to tackle common challenges.

We cooperate with non-EU countries to deter illegal fishing, focusing on positive reinforcement wherever possible.

However, we may go as far as to block imports to the lucrative EU market if they don’t comply.

Since 2010, with improved monitoring and control, we have seen significant improvements and changes of national legislation in 22 countries, among which is Thailand, one of the world’s largest fish processors.

We also promote our sustainability principles internationally in regional fisheries management organisations.

The recovery of the iconic Atlantic bluefin tuna, stocks of which nearly collapsed a few years ago, is a tangible result of the cooperation between the EU and its partners.

Through the negotiation of bilateral sustainable fisheries agreements with partners in Africa, Indian and the Pacific oceans, we encourage development of sustainable fisheries management in third countries while providing access for EU fleets to surplus stocks.

In return, the partner countries receive financial aid to strengthen the sustainable management of stocks, improve surveillance capacity and support small-scale fisheries.

The EU is also a leader in building public awareness around ocean conservation.

Last year, we organised an #EUbeachcleanup campaign in over 70 countries, mobilising EU staff and local communities to preserve our fragile environment. The 2019 edition promises to be bigger still.

Despite these accomplishments, however, much remains to be done.

For example, fi rm action is overdue in the Mediterranean and Black Sea where in 2016, 78 percent of stocks were overfished.

We are finally making progress, as Parliament has just adopted our first multi-year plan to sustainably manage fish stocks in the Western Mediterranean. This is a huge breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the once-stable Northeast Atlantic is facing uncertainty due to Brexit. The EU and UK share at least 100 fish stocks.

The Commission will negotiate a long-term arrangement that protects both fish and fishermen and allows coastal communities to prosper on both sides of the water.

Plastics pollution remains a major threat. To fight this, we see opportunities in integrating marine litter requirements in fisheries agreements.

Moreover, we continue to promote action against marine litter in global fora, such as the UN, G7, and G20.

In the face of climate change, our oceans offer us remarkable means to mitigate this planetary challenge.

The oceans are an abundant source of renewable energy, indispensable for delivering a zero-emission EU economy.

By 2050, 10 percent of Europe’s electricity could come from ocean energy, covering the needs of 76 million European households.

With our action in recent years, the EU has proven that ambitious regulation, international cooperation and awareness building can make a huge difference - even on something as big as the ocean.

That makes me optimistic for the future.