In December, EU ministers gathered in Brussels to establish fishing opportunities in the form of yearly “total allowable catches” (TACs) and quotas – in what was expected to be the final step towards the legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020. The new Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius claimed almost all fish landings from the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea will now come from sustainable resources. However, the deal struck in Brussels fails to meet targets recommended by scientists, who believe that key stocks such as cod, seabass, hake and herring are still overfished – and that, in particular, the cod population is at critical levels.
Rebecca Hubbard, programme director at NGO Our Fish, said: “The agreement reached in December demonstrates that fisheries ministers cannot be entrusted with restoring healthy ocean ecosystems.
“By agreeing to continue overfishing, EU fisheries ministers are refusing to pull their weight in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises.”
One group even warned of a potential legal challenge to the agreement.
During the 2013 reform of the EU’s overarching fishing regulations, also known as the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), all member states committed to ending overfishing by 2015 – or by 2020 at the latest – to restore and protect all EU stocks in a sustainable way.
Yet, overfishing will continue this year in contravention of EU law.
Nick Goetschalckx, a lawyer at NGO ClientEarth, said: “This is not just a political failure. The deadline is a legal obligation and courts exist to enforce it.
“In the current state of an environmental emergency, we cannot continue to let political horse-trading turn laws and deadlines into a farce by finding ways around them as soon as they bite.”
Despite the bloc’s failure, the Commission did not apologise like it did in 2011.
Ten years ago, Maria Damanaki, then EU’s Maritime Commissioner, admitted that the CFP had failed and created a “vicious circle” where overfishing was endangering fish species.
Pledging to scrap the EU quota system that forced fishermen to throw away or “discard” up to 80 percent of their catch, Ms Damanaki apologised for a policy that pushed Europe’s fish stocks to the brink of extinction.
She said: “I have no problem apologising if something is wrong.
“We cannot afford business as usual.
“Maybe ten years ago, the past, it was easier for us, in the European Commission, in governments, in the sector, to close our eyes.
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“We cannot do that anymore because if we do our children will see fish, not on their plates, but only in pictures.
“If it’s business as usual, in ten years only eight out of 136 stocks will be healthy.”
Ms Damanaki was the one who proposed the unprecedented reforms to the CFP, which came into force two years later.
Demanding an end to “micro-management” of fisheries by the EU, she said: “Even the most detailed technical decisions – like: what mesh size can fishermen use to fish for prawns in the Golf de Gascoigne – have to be taken at the highest level in the European machinery.
“I want to decentralise.”
Richard Benyon, who at the time was the UK Fisheries Minister, welcomed Ms Damanaki’s proposals, saying: “The current CFP has failed.
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“It has not given us healthy fish stocks and it has not delivered a sustainable living for our fishing industry. Only genuine fundamental reform of this broken policy can turn around these failures.
“We need to end the unacceptable practice of throwing dead fish back to the sea. It’s a terrible waste of perfectly good food and one of the biggest failings of the CFP.”
According to the first post-Brexit assessment of the UK’s fisheries, only a third of the UK’s key fish populations are in a healthy state.
However, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said Brexit offers an opportunity for Britain to end overfishing.
The spokesperson said: “As an independent coastal state, we will manage our fisheries sustainably in a way that protects our precious marine and coastal environment, and enables our seafood sector and coastal communities to thrive.
“The Government is committed to sustainable fishing, and our Fisheries Act enshrined that commitment in law with the introduction of our fisheries management plans, which are legally binding plans for achieving sustainable fish stocks.”