This year is the final chance for the Commission and EU Fisheries Ministers to honour their legal commitment to end overfishing in EU waters by 2020. It is clear, however, that insufficient progress has been made to date, despite the looming deadline. Now more than ever, the Commission and Fisheries Ministers must follow scientific advice if they are to achieve sustainable fisheries and restore our ocean to health.

Fish in net

Environmental organisations, including Seas At Risk, Fisheries Secretariat, ClientEarth, Oceana and Our Fish, warn that only 6% more fish stocks are fished at sustainable levels compared to 2014, when the reformed Common Fisheries Policy entered into force. This amounts to a net reduction of only four fish stocks, a paltry achievement in a five-year period, particularly given the stakes.

The slow progress is largely explained by the fact that the EU institutions have chosen to set fishing quotas beyond the limits proposed by scientists, despite the implied risk of fish population collapse and damage to marine ecosystems. Furthermore, flexibilities applied due to the European legislation of the Landing Obligation create an additional obstacle to achieving sustainable fisheries.

The Landing Obligation aims to end the wasteful practice of throwing unwanted catch overboard and to declare all caught fish. If properly implemented and monitored, this would encourage more targeted fishing, reduce fishing mortality caused by unwanted catch, and improve scientific assessments and knowledge of the state of the stocks underpinning fisheries management. Current implementation of the Landing Obligation, however, entails a risk of early closure for a small number of fisheries, i.e. if a fish species with zero quota is caught while fishing another species, fisheries must stop their activity to avoid overfishing it since they cannot discard. As a preventative measure, policy makers have adopted flexibility, under the assumption that fish is no longer discarded in EU waters. This is despite clear recognition – even by the Commission itself - that compliance with the legislation remains poor, making it highly likely that unwanted catch continues to be thrown overboard, increasing overall fish mortality. Applying this flexible approach due to the Landing Obligation thus jeopardises the achievement of sustainable fisheries by 2020.

Environmental and marine organisations also criticize the European Commission’s practice of reporting landing volumes rather than numbers of fish stocks, a practice that creates a misleading impression of progress. For example, the Commission claims that 'In the North Sea, Skagerrak and Kattegat […], 99.7% of the expected landings come from Total Allowable Catches set in line with Fmsy'. This stands in stark contrast to the conclusion of the Scientific Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries’ latest report, that progress towards ending overfishing has been too slow to meet the 2020 deadline, and that, as of 2017, 41% of the assessed stocks in the Northeast Atlantic were still subject to overfishing. The Commission's focus on landing volumes gives stocks with large landings a disproportionately large weight, resulting in high percentages, while smaller stocks with smaller landings are essentially ignored. However, the objective of the Common Fisheries Policy applies to all harvested stocks, regardless of landing volume, thus progress towards ending overfishing should primarily be measured in relation to numbers of stocks.

The Commission and EU Fisheries Ministers apply different standards to fish stocks, depending on commercial importance or the type of scientific evidence available. This, too, could lead to overfishing of some stocks, which could harm the ecosystem. Commercially important stocks and those that benefit from comprehensive scientific data (stocks with MSY scientific assessment) may see improvements, but others that are overfished, less economically valuable, or simply less understood (stocks with precautionary scientific assessment) may not reach the objective of ending overfishing by 2020, despite being similarly covered by the legislation.

In summary, NGOs urge the European Commission to ensure that the Total Allowable Catches (which has yet to be proposed and set for 2020) meet the objectives and requirements of the Common Fisheries Policy, ensure that the Landing Obligation is effectively implemented, and commit to the process of proposing and setting fishing opportunities that are transparent and publicly available.

September and November 2019 will see the Commission propose fishing limits for 2020. As the guardian of the EU treaties, it should lead on fast and decisive progress to end overfishing and meet the 2020 deadline. Will the Commission pass the litmus test? We certainly hope so.

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