Is the price of MSY too high?

Published on
June 14, 2012

While the decision to proceed with the introduction of bans on discarding unwanted fish at sea has generally been hailed as a triumph for EU fisheries chief Maria Damanaki’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform proposals, the resolution to drag out the implementation of maximum sustainable yields (MSY) in European seas to the end of the decade took considerable shine off this week’s breakthrough negotiations.

During 18 hours of protracted exchanges in Luxembourg, European fisheries ministers agreed to provisional dates for discard bans on mackerel and herring (1 January 2014) and cod, haddock, plaice and sole (1 January 2018), but they were less enthusiastic in their support of MSY — the means by which European fisheries would be managed in accordance with scientific advice on how much fishing they can sustainably maintain.

Damanaki had hoped to move to MSY from 2015 and was therefore disappointed to see ministers agree to that date only “where possible.” Instead, 2020 was the date settled on for stocks where there isn’t sufficient scientific data.

The motion to implement MSY was Damanaki’s main policy to ensure European stocks are not overfished and so, not surprisingly, she described the compromise date of 2020 as being “too timid.” Her reaction has been expanded upon by conservation groups who generally feel let down by the long timelines and vague text, which they believe keeps the door wide open to overfishing for at least the next eight years.

A year ago, in my commentary “Damanaki’s rally cry for CFP reform,” I wrote that implementing MSY was an integral part of the commissioner’s reform package, and she felt that this needed to be achieved post-haste.

The commentary, written ahead of the release of the CFP reform proposals on 13 July 2011, documented a speech that Damanaki made at the GLOBE World Oceans Day Forum in London, where she pleaded for backing from the attending EU member state delegations and dignitaries for her plans for wholesale fisheries reform. 

At the forum, Damanaki revealed that as well as addressing the controversial practice of discarding, the reform proposals would include the commitment to reach MSY by 2015. This was first decided upon at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, but had “become a real legal obligation,” she said.

She likened European fish stocks to underperforming assets and stressed that she wanted to maximize the fishing industry’s economic return.

“MSY means that we can keep fishing. But we have to manage each fish stock in such a way that we can get maximum financial gains while still keeping the stock sustainable,” she said.

It would be wrong to suggest that MSY and establishing sustainable stocks throughout European waters doesn’t appeal to all 27 EU member states, but the overriding problem with achieving MSY is, unlike outlawing discarding, it requires economic forfeiture. In putting an end to overfishing, subscribers to MSY must make immediate reductions in their catch volumes, which in turn reduces their income and ultimately puts many fishermen out of work.  

A year ago, even Damanaki’s most ardent supporters acknowledged that this would not be a popular policy proposal with a number of member states. And so it proved in last week’s part victory.

While it’s widely agreed the current CFP is ineffective and in theory most Europeans prescribe to the idea of having a sustainable fisheries policy, the short-term detrimental effects that reform proposals like MSY could have on member states’ fishing communities are perhaps a little too much for some to stomach, particularly coming at a time when many countries are struggling with recession.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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