With fish stocks plummeting and the fishing sector stumbling from one crisis to another, it could seem that European fisheries are beyond hope. And perhaps some are. But the ongoing process to reform the Common Fisheries Policy poses an opportunity not to be missed if Europeans want to have their fish... and eat them too.

With fish stocks plummeting and the fishing sector stumbling from one crisis to another, it could seem that European fisheries are beyond hope. And perhaps some are. But the ongoing process to reform the Common Fisheries Policy poses an opportunity not to be missed if Europeans want to have their fish... and eat them too.

The facts are well-known, but they still remain shocking: 88% of assessed European fish stocks are deemed to be overfished. These are fish stocks that if better managed would be producing more fish, bringing larger economic benefits to the sector and easing the financial woe of fishermen and coastal communities. It also means that if the situation is not corrected, these stocks will one day reach a point of no return and collapse.

Another shocking figure: 30% of European fish stocks are currently outside safe biological limits. This means that even if fishing activities would cease, the biomass of the stock is so low that it might never recover. One out of every three European fish stocks might already be beyond hope.

However, there is still some optimism for the remaining 70%. In April 2009, the European Commission launched what then-Commissioner Borg liked to term a “root and branch” reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

In the subsequent and somewhat audacious Green Paper, the Commission outlined the major failings of the CFP. In addition to the over-exploitation of resources, the paper mentioned unemployment rates rising and the sector as being unprofitable and subsidy-dependent – clearly showing that the policy has failed in achieving environmental, economic and social sustainability. The Commission also recognised that the current CFP is complex to administer, difficult to enforce, and much too costly in relation to the economic gains generated by the sector.

Seas At Risk (SAR) in general, agrees with the analysis made by the Commission. Together with more than 50 organisations in the coalition group OCEAN2012 - of which SAR is a founding and steering group member - SAR is striving for a reformed CFP which:

- Prioritises environmental sustainability as the over-arching principle - without which economic and social sustainability is unobtainable.

- Contributes to the implementation of the provisions of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

- Reduces the fleet based on environmental and social criteria.

- Makes access to fisheries resources and public aid for fishing conditional on environmental and social factors, as well as on compliance to the rules of the CFP.

- Makes public funding available to smooth the transition to more sustainable fisheries.

- Commits decision-makers to following scientific advice.

- Establishes a decision-making framework which differentiates between strategic/long term and operational management decisions.

OPPOSITION TO REFORM

While the objectives mentioned resonate with many organisations, citizens and institutions, they still face political opposition from other quarters.

As recently as January 2010, the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee could not agree to state in their own initiative report on the Green Paper that environmental sustainability should be counted as a prerequisite to economic and social sustainability.

In simpler terms, the lack of agreement suggests an inadequate level of consideration to the importance of environmental sustainability, a stance which contrasts with President Barroso’s clear statement that: “We must make ecological sustainability the basic premise of the policy; economic and social sustainability will follow from that.“

Note to the Fisheries Committee: There can be no fisheries without fish and there can be no fish without healthy ecosystems.

On a side note, amazingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly considering the Fisheries Committee’s response - MEPs have also called for subsidies towards fleet modernisation and renewal; despite the overwhelming fact that overcapacity of the fleet remains a key driver of overfishing and poor economic profitability of the sector.

Indeed, overcapacity remains the main threat to the very survival of several fish stocks. Seas At Risk would like to see the problem of large fishing fleets tackled by focusing the reduction efforts on the most fuel intensive and destructive sectors of the EU fleet.

The review of the CFP will provide precious opportunity to achieve a fleet that is of such a size and quality as to be able to be profitable without endangering the survival of the very resource on which the sector depends.

CHANGE IS STILL POSSIBLE

Fortunately, there is still an opportunity to right the wrongs of the CFP and 2010 will be a decisive year.

The public consultation process concerning the CFP reform - in which Seas At Risk has been heavily involved - is now over. Having said this, there is still plenty of ground to be covered throughout the year with: the Commission preparing an impact assessment for different reform options; seminars and workshops offering further analyses of problematic and complex issues; and a legislative proposal which will be produced and presented to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

Throughout the course of 2010, SAR and OCEAN2012 will continue to focus on the progression of these events and press for a true transformation of the CFP: a transformation that puts the environment first and sustainability as the foundation for the policy.

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