Disputes with NGOs over science overshadow EU achievements on reducing overfishing

The world is unlikely to meet a United Nations sustainable development goal on ending overfishing, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization’s recent report on the state of the world fisheries.

But the U.N.’s blunt admission that the world’s failing to meet SDG Target 14.4 – to end overfishing of marine fisheries by 2020 – has not prevented the European Union from declaring a victory of sorts in ending overfishing in its own territories. 

This year, 99 percent of the volume of stocks “managed by the E.U. alone and subject to full scientific assessment” will be fished sustainably, according to an E.U. Commission statement in response to SeafoodSource questions. That would appear to meet the E.U.’s own goal of ensuring all stocks are sustainably exploited by 2020, though full scientific data isn’t yet available on many of the stocks, while data on others are disputed.

In December, new E.U. Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius said “almost all” fish landings from the Atlantic and the North Sea would come from sustainable sources. The E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy states that the E.U. will set annual fishing limits in line with maximum sustainable yields by 2020 at the latest – this was set in 2013 by Regulation 1380 of the European Parliament and of the Council fisheries ministers.

The E.U. sets fishing quotas for each of its member-states, who negotiate the levels every December. A recent report by two NGOs suggesting the E.U. continues to set quotas for member-states at levels above those advised by scientific advice omitted other factors, according to the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm.

An E.C. statement in response to SeafoodSource questions suggests “there are other important elements that also contribute to making fishery more sustainable” that aren’t captured by a recent report compiled by Our Fish and the New Economics Foundation that ranks E.U. member-states solely on the proportion of their quota that was set above scientific advice. Spain and Ireland topped the ranking of countries with quotas set above scientific levels.

The report called into question the European Union’s credibility at World Trade Organization negotiations on ending harmful subsidies to fisheries, suggesting that over the past 20 years, the E.U. has landed nine million tons of fish beyond levels advised as scientifically sustainable.

But current quotas set by the E.U. are in line with E.U. efforts against overfishing, the E.C. told SeafoodSource. And scientific advice on quotas is open to interpretation, it added.

“In certain cases, as for certain stocks taken in that analysis, the scientists do not have enough data to determine with confidence the sustainable catch level,” the E.C. said in its statement. “These stocks receive a ‘precautionary advice’ from the scientists from the [International Council for the Exploration of the Sea]. In such cases, scientists either indicate trends for the stock’s level or a lack of data to assess the stock.”

The European Commission manages around 153 total allowable catches in the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and Baltic Sea – 75 of which are currently under precautionary advice.

“Thus, the interpretation of catch levels for those stocks with limited scientific assessment can lead to different conclusions as regards the overall sustainability of fisheries,” the E.C. said.

The E.U.’s quotas are decided by the fisheries ministers of the states, often disregarding advice from the E.C., according to Griffin Carpenter, a senior researcher with the New Economic Foundation.

“E.U. member-states should be committed to [maximum sustainable yield] on shared stocks, but they are not,” Carpenter said. “One easy example from recent years is Ireland arguing that the MSY advice on mackerel should not be followed. In the Irish government’s own press release, the minister even thanked one head of the Irish fishing industry for informing his position.”

However, an official Irish response to SeafoodSource questions the value of claims made on science alone and points to the need for quotas allowing for bycatch.

“The 2020 quotas for 32 of 47 species of particular interest to Ireland were set at or below the scientific advice where available, meeting maximum sustainable yield criteria,” the Irish Department of Agriculture said in a statement sent to SeafoodSource. “For four vulnerable stocks of interest to Ireland, where the advice [from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea] was for no fishing, restrictive quotas were set. This allows for unavoidable by-catches of these stocks, in circumstances where they are part of mixed fisheries. The council also agreed to very small quotas to allow for the collection of scientific data for three depleted herring stocks. For the eight remaining stocks, it was agreed to set precautionary quotas considering the scientific advice available, and the status of many of these as minor by-catches.”

Pointing to Ireland’s quotas for three depleted herring stocks, the ministry said while the headline ICES advice is for zero catches, it accepted the case for a scientific “monitoring” quota of the stocks in 2020.  

As for the fishery industry guiding the Irish minister’s negotiations, aside from listening to fishing firms, the minister runs an “open consultation process” with scientists, NGOs, and the Irish parliament each year prior to the E.U.’s quota-setting meetings, according to the ministry statement.

The overall trend in E.U. waters may be positive. The E.C. statement to SeafoodSource pointed to “significant improvements” in sustainable fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic over the past 20 years, noting that in 2003, more than 70 percent of stocks in the region were overfished. In its statement, the E.C. didn’t mention the situation in the Mediterranean – often regarded as the world’s most overfished ocean – which the E.U. shares with other territories.

“In the Northeast Atlantic and adjacent areas, the Commission proposed total allowable catches based on scientific advice by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea,” it said. “We have done this for every single stock managed entirely by the E.U. where scientists are confident about their predictions.”

Likewise, the E.U. is improving data collection for scientists through funding via the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which also underwrites refurbishments of fishing vessels and handling facilities. The goal is to bring all stocks managed under the Common Fisheries Policy under solid scientific assessment, progressively restoring and maintaining populations of fish stocks above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield, according to the E.C. The EMFF funding means Europe has therefore been funding measures specifically to combat overcapacity and overfishing, as outlined in the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, according to the E.C.

Recovery measures such as area closures and gear selectivity also accompany such quotas, the E.C. said. The E.U. has also adopted lower range total allowable catches on certain healthy stocks, with the purpose of protecting unhealthy stocks when they are fished together.

Photo courtesy of JPS/Shutterstock


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500