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After almost three-and-a-half years of difficult negotiations, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform package has been approved. The policy is now tasked with returning European fish stocks to sustainable levels and to put an end to wasteful fishing practices.

The new fisheries legislation was given the final green light in a final plenary vote by European Parliament (EP) on 10 December and will start to take effect on 1 January 2014. The basic regulation includes measures to halt overfishing and to reduce the controversial practice of discarding unwanted fish at sea.

EU fisheries chief Maria Damanaki, who initiated the CFP reform process in July 2011, was relieved to see the official adoption of the new legislation, stating that Europe now has “a policy which will radically change our fisheries and will pave the way for a sustainable future for our fishermen and our resources.”

She added that the new CFP is “a driver for what is most needed in today's Europe: a return to growth and jobs for our coastal communities.”

According to EP, currently 88 percent of Mediterranean stocks and 39 percent of Atlantic stocks are overfished due to surplus fleet capacity, excessive catches and patchy compliance with the previous rules. Under the new CFP, member states will have to set sustainable fishing quotas from 2014, and only in clearly defined, exceptional cases, by 2020. At the same time, fishermen will have to respect the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of stocks. In other words, they will be prevented from catching more than a given stock can reproduce in a given year.

The new CFP also stipulates that the EU must avoid contributing to overfishing in foreign waters. It should only catch surpluses that a third country is unable to use, as provided in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Fisheries agreements with third countries will in future contain a human rights clause, which means agreements could be suspended if human rights are violated.

Agreements with third countries will also have to contain an exclusivity clause stipulating the agreement cannot be circumvented by private contracts between fishermen and third country governments. The EP said it hopes these measures will help prevent "flag hopping" in line with its resolution on the external dimension of the CFP. It’s also requiring control measures to be overseen by a new compliance committee.

To hinder the practice of discarding, EU fishing vessels will have to land at least 95 percent of all catches in accordance with a schedule of specific dates for different fisheries, starting gradually from 2015 until 2019. The EP stressed that it fought to keep this figure as high as possible but conceded an outright ban wasn’t viable.

One of the biggest criticisms of the outgoing CFP, which was the outcome of the last reform in 2002, is it required a lot of unnecessary decision making to take place in Brussels. The new policy addresses this issue by bringing a certain amount of devolution to European fisheries management, whereby certain decisions can be taken by regional authorities. The aim is to ensure that where detailed technical rules, such as fishing net mesh sizes, have to be set for individual sea areas, it’s done closer to those directly affected. It should be noted, however, that centralized institutions will continue to assess whether policy targets are being met.

In the context of this regionalization, advisory councils will play a greater role as a forum for building consensus within a region, said EP. It has also demanded that the councils will have a more balanced membership, with 40 percent of members being representatives from outside the fisheries sector, such as NGOs.

Meanwhile, at a consumer level, on-pack labeling rules have been overhauled in order to provide more information to shoppers about the fish they are buying. As a result, retailers will be required to give their customers more specific details relating to the catch area and the type of fishing gear used.

While it’s still very early days, the new CFP has been met with general approval. For example, new U.K. Fisheries Minister George Eustice said he felt European fishing would become “more sustainable” as a result. However, stakeholders are also conscious that there are still some important details that need to be ironed out in the coming months, including defining the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which will be tasked with co-financing the sustainability objectives of the new policy by increasing investment in small-scale fisheries and aquaculture projects as sources for future growth.

Nevertheless, with most of the political wrangling over, it’s now down to the finalized CFP to bring beneficial change to Europe’s seafood industry.      

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