Every 8 of June since 2008 we celebrate the World Oceans Day to remind the major role that oceans have in everyday life and create awareness about the impact of human actions on the seas. This year, the fight against plastic pollution and marine litter has occupied a central place within European policies. However, many marine species continue to face another dangerous threat: extinction by overfishing.
Despite the efforts, sustainable fishing is still a pending subject in the EU, especially in the Mediterranean Sea, where most of the fish stocks are overexploited.
The alarming situation in the oceans: thousands of species endangered
The situation is very serious. One million species worldwide are in danger of disappearing in the coming decades according to the latest IPBES report commissioned by the United Nations. Among the causes of this massive extinction, climate change, pollution and the overexploitation of land and seas -including overfishing- stand out.
According to the WWF ‘Living Blue Planet’ report, 29% of commercial fish stocks are now classed as overexploited and 61% as fully exploited. “In the space of a single generation, human activity has severely damaged the ocean by catching fish faster than they can reproduce while also destroying their nurseries. Profound changes are needed to ensure abundant ocean life for future generations,” has pointed out Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International.
EU’s Common Fisheries Policy: sustainable fishing by 2020
Since 2015, sustainable fishing limits have been established along European oceans in the framework of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to allow maintaining the marine population in the long term. The objective is bringing commercial fishing pressure to sustainable levels by 2020. “Next year is a crucial year. All Member States agreed that by 2020 all stocks must be managed sustainably. For this, we need to step up our actions and deliver on what we set out to achieve,” stated last week Commissioner Karmenu Vella, responsible for the Environment, Maritime Affairs, and Fisheries.
According to the European Commission, in the Northeast Atlantic area – including the North and Baltic Seas-, overall stocks are on average fished sustainably. On the contrary, in the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, the situation “remains worrying”: In 2017, 35 out of the 40 stocks assessed were exploited beyond sustainable levels, so it is quite probable that the Mediterranean Member States will not meet the EU objective by next year.
The role of fisheries subsidies to achieve the 2020 objective
One of the key measures within the CFP to put an end to overfishing has been the progressive elimination of ‘harmful fisheries subsidies’ that were destined to the construction of new ships and to increase the fishing capacity of the fleets. This commitment was reaffirmed two years ago during the multilateral negotiations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) when member countries agreed to comply with the target 14.6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). From that moment, the EU agreed to ban, by 2020, “certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.”
However, not all Member States feel ready to give up the European subsidies, especially those where the fishing industry plays an important role in its economy, like Spain, Italy, and France. On May 10, the three Member States sent a Joint Declaration to the European Commission regarding the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) for the period 2021-2027, in which they suggested introducing more aids for vessel modernization.
Four days later, the EU Executive rejected the proposal. “This would not only contradict the CFP but also our international commitments under the Sustainable Development Agenda and the World Trade Organisation,” responded Karmenu Vella, who also indicated that “relaxed conditions for engine replacement would lead to a significant increase in the capacity of the EU fleet, which would by default increase fishing pressure.”
According to the Spanish Minister of Agriculture, Fishing, and Food, Luis Planas, it is not about “increasing capacity but improving the energy efficiency, the safety of the crew and the working conditions of the fishermen.” However, the Commission sees in the introduction of this kind of subsidies a clear threat to the sustainable fishing objective. “I cannot accept that we move backward and jeopardize what we have achieved over the last few years in the Common Fisheries Policy,” concluded the Commissioner.
The negotiations will continue the following weeks and, despite the Commission’s firm position, other Member States such as Portugal, Malta, Greece or Cyprus have shown support to the Joint Declaration made by Spain, France, and Italy. Most of them share the idea that in order to comply with the CFP commitments, national circumstances regarding fleets and fishing industry should be taken into account. In other words, the Mediterranean countries are asking for “more flexibility”.
But, how much longer will the oceans be able to adapt to men’s needs? By trying to introduce fisheries subsidies to keep jobs alive in the industry, some Governments can lose sight of the long term, which may end up condemning the next generation instead of serving the general interest.