In the upcoming month, under the requirements of the Ocean and Fisheries Action Plan, national Fisheries and Environment Ministries will begin to shape concrete measures and timelines that, if wisely designed and timely implemented, hold the power to transform the state of the ocean. Member States must seize this opportunity by setting plans ambitious enough to meet the urgency and the scale of the crises currently faced by the ocean. These plans will be shaped during a series of talks, between the European Commission and  Member States, and Seas At Risk, together with other stakeholders, will be attending as an observer. With the publication of the long awaited Action Plan in February, the Commission made a step forward by unveiling the uncomfortable truth about the dire state of marine life in EU waters. The Commission finally acknowledged the responsibilities of the fisheries sector and the need to shift to low-impact fisheries, by both moving away from destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling, as well as by truly protecting sensitive species from incidental catches. 

The destructive fishing practice of bottom trawling shows a blatant disregard for the ecological and climate polycrisis we are going through as it exacerbates the pace of marine biodiversity loss. Dragging huge nets on the seafloor destroys the habitat of several species, which is essential for the reproduction of marine life. By indiscriminately catching living organisms on the seafloor, bottom trawling produces over 90% of EU incidental catches, and prevents the ocean from playing its role in absorbing and storing carbon, leading to a reduction in the ocean’s climate mitigation capacity as well as of the climate resilience of marine ecosystems. 

Not even marine protected areas are spared from the destruction of trawlers: shockingly, bottom trawling takes place more intensively in so-called ‘protected’ areas than outside. Allowing trawlers to devastate areas that are meant to preserve pristine underwater landscapes and diverse marine life, betrays the spirit behind the creation of protected areas in the first place. As one of the most debated issues in the Action Plan, the ban of bottom trawling in all EU marine protected areas by 2030 shows how European fisheries are far too dependent on an out-dated and ecocidal technique. Phasing out bottom trawling would pave the way towards the creation of a new range of green jobs to transition away from harmful fishing practices, while leading us towards a more sustainable future. 

Another hotly debated issue in the Action Plan is the protection of marine sensitive species, such as sharks, dolphins, harbour porpoises, and birds. Despite being strictly protected by European legislation (the EU Habitats Directive), these species often become victims of fisheries operations due to the indiscriminate nature of certain fishing methods, such as gillnetting or trawling. The topic becomes highly political due to Member States systematically not abiding by their obligations under EU legislation (such as the Technical Measures Regulation), which require them to minimise the number of incidental catches. This repeated failure to comply with EU legislation is a stark reminder of the inadequacy and weakness of the functioning of the EU’s various conservation rules. 

Talks are set to hopefully end political stalling. As foreseen in the Action Plan, by the end of 2023, Member States must develop plans to prevent further bycatch of cetaceans, such as dolphins and harbour porpoises. National governments should swiftly shape and implement these plans without wasting further time, as effective measures to protect these species were supposed to be in place for a long time. In particular, we call on France to abandon its inexcusable inaction on the preservation of dolphins, and, rather, demonstrate domestically the same level of ambition as the one professed on the world stage in the fight against biodiversity loss. Should States fail again to minimise incidental catches of sensitive species, the Commission must use its power by systematically applying infringement procedures and emergency measures on non-compliant Member States.

We cannot afford using brutal, wasteful fishing practices akin to picking strawberries with a bulldozer. We need to take care of our fragile blue home. We call on Member States to follow the lead of the European Commission and help fisheries communities transition towards more selective, less harmful and less carbon intensive fishing practices. It is time to prioritise low impact fishing practices that respect our planetary boundaries and can guarantee a prosperous future for our blue planet and all its inhabitants.