Europe Adopts Sweeping Changes to Fishing Policy
This article first appeared in the New York Times February 6, 2013.
PARIS — In an outcome hailed by environmentalists, European Union lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to overhaul the region’s troubled fisheries policy to end decades of overfishing.
Responding to widespread public dissatisfaction with the current policy, the European Parliament voted 502-to-137 to impose sustainable quotas by 2015 and end the wasteful practice of discarding unwanted fish at sea. The legislation also returns some management responsibility to E.U. member states.
“The fishermen back home were really determined to wrest control away from Brussels, where the micromanagers have been the absolute ruination of the fisheries policy,” and they will be pleased with the outcome, said Struan Stevenson, a Scottish member of Parliament for the European Conservatives and Reformists and the party’s spokesman on the issue.
Markus Knigge, policy and research director for Pew Environment, said the E.U. legislation was comparable to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the landmark U.S. law that in 1976 established modern American fisheries practices, widely seen as superior to European practices.
Under current policy, 63 percent of the E.U.’s Atlantic stocks and 82 percent of its Mediterranean stocks are overfished, according to the European Commission.
The vote Wednesday in Strasbourg was the first time the Parliament had shared responsibility for setting fisheries policy, formerly the domain of the European Fisheries Council. The council, dominated by national fisheries ministries with close ties to the industry, has been criticized for flouting scientific recommendations on catch limits and providing subsidies to fleets harvesting even the most vulnerable species.
Guy Vernaeve, secretary general of Europêche, which represents European fishing associations, expressed disappointment with the vote. Setting quotas at maximum sustainable yields by 2015 was “unrealistic,” he said, and the discard ban was a “radical obligation” that legislators had adopted without understanding that in many cases it would be impossible to implement.
Mr. Vernaeve said the industry would seek to persuade the European Fisheries Council to fight some measures, but added that a final agreement could be reached by June.
The parliamentary vote, spearheaded by Ulrike Rodust, a German Socialist who leads the Fisheries Committee, was supported by an alliance of Greens, Liberals, Socialists and the Conservatives and Reformists. But parliamentary observers said the final tally showed that some lawmakers from parties opposed to the overhaul had crossed the aisles in significant numbers to support it.
Still, the Parliament does not have the final word on the matter. Because the legislation adopted Wednesday goes much further than proposals from the Fisheries Council, the issue will go through a process known as a trilogue — a reconciliation of the competing proposals, with the European Commission acting as mediator.
In addition, some E.U. states with significant fishing industries have argued that the Parliament does not have the authority to set multiyear fishing plans, raising the possibility of a battle over E.U. governance that could lead all the way to the European Court of Justice.
Nonetheless, the Irish government, which holds the rotating presidency of the Union, has said it hopes to wrap up an agreement by the end of June.
Maria Damanaki, the European fisheries commissioner, said she welcomed the vote, noting in a statement that the Parliament had endorsed “the approach put forward by the commission” — a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that her own proposals had been watered down by national fisheries ministers.
In concrete terms, the measures Wednesday require that by 2015, all European quotas be set at the optimal catch level, known as maximum sustainable yield. The fishing industry had called for introducing that standard on a case-by-case basis starting in 2020.
The legislation also requires the elimination of excess fishing capacity, a perennial problem for European fisheries, by removing boats from the fishing fleets. The measure also would deny subsidy payments to fisheries that did not respect the law, including by failing to provide accurate catch data.
Parliament also voted for a strict ban on discarding, the environmentally and economically costly practice in which fish are thrown back into the sea, often dead or dying, because they could not be legally caught. Fleets will have to modify their methods and equipment so they do not accidentally catch prohibited fish.
Mr. Stevenson said the timetable on some of the issues might turn out to be “unrealistic,” particularly a blanket discard ban by Jan. 1, 2014.
“All sorts of work has to be done,” he said. “Fishermen have to adapt their methods, adapt their gear. But I believe that by 2018 at the latest, we’ll see the discarding of fish as history.”