Ending overfishing in northern Europe: a fishy game

The North Sea is no exception to the overfishing spree across Europe. As discussions are ongoing between Norway and the EU, scientists issue their latest warning on collapsing cod stocks.

Published On: September 2nd, 2019
Ending overfishing in northern Europe: a fishy game_62ccad969bd0d.jpeg
Ending overfishing in northern Europe: a fishy game_62ccad969bd0d.jpeg

Photo: pxhere , CC0 – Public Domain

Ending overfishing in northern Europe: a fishy game

The North Sea is no exception to the overfishing spree across Europe. As discussions are ongoing between Norway and the EU, scientists issue their latest warning on collapsing cod stocks.

Photo: pxhere , CC0 – Public Domain

The conflict between the urge to relentlessly plunder the sea for instant profits and the need to conserve fish as a healthy food source and a diverse ecosystem for future generations is coming to a head off the coast of northern Europe. Scientists have just launched their latest warning: cod, a favorite species in high demand by seafood lovers, should spend much more time at sea than it spends in restaurants to avoid collapsing.

Now it is up to the European Union and its main fishing partner, Norway, to seize their last chance to comply with their commitment to end overfishing by 2020. This target, set by the EU in its Common Fishery Policy , and agreed to by Norway and the EU globally through the International Convention on Biological Diversity , is far from being met.

The EU and Norway are preparing for their annual round of negotiations (technically “consultations”), scheduled for the end of November. A tradeoff worth millions is on their agenda: they need to decide how much cod and other species they can take out of each others’ waters during the following year, limits technically called Total Allowed Catches (TACs). The EU-Norway agreement is traditionally confirmed in December in Brussels by the EU fishing and agriculture ministries that, at the same time, set the TACs for all the other stocks in the North East Atlantic waters of the Single Market. Total quotas are then distributed amongst member states which, eventually, allocate them to their national fishermen.

Due to fishing-lobby pressure, fleets have been consistently allowed to fish more than what scientists recommend is sustainable. No one can be held officially accountable for that, as the whole decision-making process happens behind closed doors, obscuring the identities of policymakers who favor business at the expense of sustainability. There is also the problem of malpractice: some fishermen throw back into the sea huge quantities of under-sized or unwanted marine life unsuitable for sale, often dead or dying.

The combination of questionable political decisions and destructive business practices is such that fish populations are often decimated faster than they can regenerate themselves through reproduction. Cod in the North Sea, English Channel and Skagerrak, in particular, is so depleted that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) released alarming advice at the end of June. ICES scientists, whose advice is used by the European Commission and Norway, stated that the cod quota should be capped at 10,457 tonnes in 2020. This represents a 70 percent cut compared to last year. Reaching such a stringent threshold would mean radically inverting the negative trend recorded in 2019.

“In 2019 the EU and Norway agreed to a cut of around 30 percent to the TAC, while the science recommended that it should have been around a 50 percent cut,” said Rebecca Hubbard, Programme Director at Our Fish, which campaigns for an end to overfishing in European waters. “So, the new advice implies a worsening of an already bad situation that governments chose to ignore last year, and the gamble has not paid off.”

Overfishing in numbers

In its recent fisheries policy paper , which launched a stakeholders’ consultation on its approach to fishing limits for 2020, the European Commission admitted that the EU-Norway negotiations were particularly unsuccessful in terms of following scientific advice for sustainable fishing limits for 2019. The document indicates that only 9 out of 17 TACs were in line with scientific advice, fewer than were set for 2018. 

“Out of the seventeen TACs agreed for 2019, only two are in line with scientific advice for wanted catch, ten are set at least 25 percent above scientific advice, and the other five are above scientific advice due to exemptions from the ban on discards.”

In addition to agreeing with Norway’s inflated TACs that account for a big chunk of some member states’ fish catch, the EU is also declining a chance to end overfishing, by setting unsustainably high quotas for many of its exclusive North East Atlantic fish stocks. Unfortunately, the North East Atlantic management plans that were aimed at improving long-term management of EU fisheries have not helped the situation. For example, the North Sea Multiannual Plan allows the reduction in catches from one year to another to be restricted to just 20 percent, despite the scientific advice. 

The last annual report by the New Economics Foundation demonstrates that in 2019 EU countries will have pillaged 312,000 tonnes above scientific advice for North East Atlantic fish stocks, populating the whole marine area stretching from Portugal to the North Sea (excepted the Baltic Sea)  In terms of national quotas, Sweden leads the top three with an excess of 52.4%, followed by the UK at 24.3% and Ireland at 21.7%. In absolute terms, the UK tops the overfishing charts with 106,925 excess tonnes, followed by Denmark with 49,914 tonnes, and Ireland at 34,052 tonnes. If we compare it with the EU nations, Norway is plundering a massive 164,000 tonnes of fish above scientifically advised sustainable levels, equivalent to 21 percent of its national quota on its shared stocks with the EU. 

Further criticism came from the latest annual study of the Fundació ENT, a Catalonia-based organisation monitoring public environmental policies. The report shows that from 2015 to 2019, the European Commission made repeated methodological mistakes, thus overestimating by 16 percent the number of stocks identified as being in line with scientific advice. For example, for 2019 only 49 TACs out of 59 should be considered sustainable. “These findings show that progress on ending overfishing in the EU Northern and Atlantic waters has been slower than expected,” commented Lydia Chaparro, Marine Policy Officer at Fundació ENT.

The devil is in the interpretation

“As the analysis from Fundació ENT proves, from 2001 to 2018, two thirds of EU fishing limits have been continuously set above scientific advice, devastating marine life and undermining the health of our ocean,” Hubbard said.

The trick lies in interpreting scientific documents. Every year, ICES indicates the maximum volume of fish that can be killed without compromising the ability of the population to continue reproducing (precisely, sustainable fishing). What is officially considered as scientific advice is a TAC equating to the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). While environmentalists call for a strict limitation of commercial quota to the maximum sustainable yield or below it, governments continue to set quotas above the maximum sustainable yield point, citing socio-economic impacts, delaying the point at which fishing is done sustainably, while still claiming that they are following scientific advice for sustainable limits.

According to ICES scientists, the situation for most fish stocks in the North Sea and North East Atlantic has improved over the last 15 years, through a stricter adherence by decision-makers to scientific advice compared to two decades ago. “So far, TACs above scientific advice have not exposed stocks to an extreme danger, except for a few species such as cod,” explained Massimiliano Cardinale, researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and member of the ICES Advisory Committee. 

“Such a statement both understates the fact that a number of EU fish stocks are currently on the edge of commercial collapse, and ignores the many fish populations that are not assessed by ICES and are exposed to serious danger”, Hubbard said.

Undue industry influence

The fate of cod and that of other edible swimming species will be decided in a few months time in Bergen, Norway. The former viking capital is home to the Norwegian Directorate for Fisheries, which hosts the annual murky talks marathon during which the EU and Norway will set 2020 quotas for their shared fish stocks. Both the Directorate of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of the European Commission and the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries refused to make any comments about their plans to achieve sustainability or any other issue related to their previous or upcoming consultations. 

“These consultations are heavily influenced by the presence of the industry in the respective delegations and lack democratic scrutiny,” Hubbard said. “Last year we and other civil society organisations were denied access to the meeting, despite our formal request to the EU delegation and the fact that the Norwegian government made no objections to our participation.”

In its answer to a Freedom of Information inquiry filed by Our Fish, the European Commission explicitly recognized that no transparent set of rules exists about stakeholders’ attendance in the EU-Norway fishery negotiations. “It is outrageous that civil society cannot attend deliberations which are meant to be managing a valuable publicly owned resource, but are instead resulting in their over-exploitation,” said Hubbard. Replying to a written interrogation by the Green MEP Linnéa Engström, in January 2019 the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, argued that the decision to include national industry and/or civil society members is left to each member state. 

The reality is that only fishing associations get an entrance ticket, as evidenced by the delegates listed in the consultations of 2017. Industry representatives accounted for almost 50 percent of all delegates. One of them is precisely the Chief Executive of British National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations , Barrie C. Deas who, during an interview, explained how the industry has its say during the consultations. “Stakeholders are permitted to sit in the plenary sessions as observers but not in the closed-up meetings where the EU coordinates with member states or is talking directly to the Norwegian government,” the UK fishermen representative said. “We wait for the national officials to provide us with updates about the ongoing meetings and, if needed, we express our position.” 

Official sources from the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said government provides regular opportunities prior to and during the negotiations for stakeholders to discuss their priorities and contribute to the development of the UK negotiating position. Without disclosing what its position was at the last EU-Norway consultations, DEFRA bluntly referred to its Fisheries White Paper . The document considers that achieving sustainability may involve short term costs to the fishing sectors in terms of catch reductions for certain species, but that in the longer run it will bring them benefits.

Then, why have sustainable fisheries become an almost impossible mission in Europe? Finding the truth behind politically correct statements is quite fishy.

Deas shares the views that Commissioner Vella expressed in its answers to the parliamentary interrogation: the consultations outcome is always difficult to guarantee, as Norway is not in the EU and is not bound by the rules of the Common Fishery Policy (including the obligation to reach sustainable fisheries by 2020).

The funny twist is that Norway puts the blame back on the EU and its greedy industry. “Norway has over many years tried to move the EU in a more sustainable direction, and we especially pointed out cod’s critical state in the agreement for 2019, but the EU as a major shareholder wanted higher quota and the result were levels above the advice,” said Jan Birger Jørgensen, Assistant Secretary General of the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association. “In the Norwegian delegation we advise the government with whom we agree in most cases, while there are always hard discussions inside the EU delegation between the member states, all fighting for their own interests”. 

Discards boost fish killing

According to Jørgensen, the EU delegation insisted for several years on bumping up cod TACs to compensate fleets for their “virtual” lower catches, due to the discard ban that was introduced by the European Commission in 2013 to force a more selective fishery and to reduce waste. In the EU-Norway agreement for 2018 the discard ban compensation rates for cod in the North Sea and Skagerrak were respectively 45,10 percent and 88,17 percent.

The discard ban – also known as the landing obligation – has been phased in to EU waters since 2015, and was applied to all North Sea cod catches in January 2019. This new measure requires all commercial catches, including those unsuitable for sale, to be brought to port and counted against quota.

“Quota top-ups are now necessary to cover unwanted catches that must be landed whether there is a market for them or not,” Deas said. Indeed, before the landing obligation entered into force, a vessel operating in a mixed fishery that had exhausted its quota for one species could toss overboard any catches of that species, and continue to fish for others which might be economically more important. According to the landing obligation, if a vessel exhausts a quota for a given species, to avoid exceeding that quota it must instead stop fishing for the rest of the year, leaving all its other quotas uncaught. These extreme situations are called chokes.

“Final TACs need be higher or lower than those recommended by scientists since they need to take into account a range of issues such as avoiding fleet chokes, managing mixed fisheries and also socio-economic aspects, most of all fishers’ jobs,” Deas said. “An extreme reduction in cod TACs would significantly increase the risk that quota for this species will be exhausted early in the year, leaving fleets tied up, unable to catch their quotas for haddock, whiting, plaice, sole, turbot, etc.”

Cod: to kill or not to kill

Deas proposes, in practice, that cod TACs should be set above what is advised by scientists as sustainable, while other stocks should have their TACs reduced, in order to align quotas as far as possible. This business-oriented approach is exactly what frustrates environmentalists.

Hubbard contradicts Deas’ reasoning. “The EU continues to assign extra quota, based on an incorrect assumption that discarding has stopped, which it has not, as fishers are reluctant to report unprofitable fish and their governments are not in a hurry to inspect them,” Our Fish Programme Director said. “The result is that fishers take advantage of quota top-ups corresponding to the theoretical amount of unwanted fish, to catch even more sellable fish, while continuing to get rid of the unwanted catch. As the scientific advice for more drastic cuts to North Sea cod fishing limits shows this year: government and industry can’t continue to stick their head in the sand on this, without creating further pain for the fishery and themselves”.

Deas insists on defending the sector’s interests: “The EU and Norway may agree on a staged cod TACs decrease over say 2, 3, or 5 years, which is a more appropriate option than dramatic cuts in TACs in one single year.” On the contrary, both ICES scientists and environmentalists consider that delaying TACs reduction may increase the risk of the collapse of cod stocks.

“Cod stock in the North Sea, over the last two years, has approached a critical situation with a considerable biomass loss, meaning that catches are way too high and very few juveniles grow adult”, Cardinale from ICES stated. 

Environmentalists push for stricter law enforcement

In a joint appeal addressed to the European institutions, Our Fish and other environmental NGOs suggested that quota top-ups should only be granted to fleets that demonstrate full compliance and ensure that TACs are not exceeded, for example through the use of on-board observers or remote electronic monitoring systems. The petition also called for an improvement of the outdated joint stock management plans annexed to the EU and Norway agreements every year, and to adopt a precautionary approach with a comparable degree of conservation for those stocks for which ICES advice is not available.

To address the poor enforcement of the landing regulation, in 2018 the European Commission proposed a review of the Control Regulation to make remote surveillance binding, thus enabling enforcement authorities to monitor fleets’ on-board operations from their stations using a strategic risk-assessment approach, rather than running random and resource-consuming off-shore inspections.

“Currently, on-board observers are only used on around 1-2 percent of vessels, and only for scientific data collection, not for control purposes,” Hubbard said. The introduction of effective controls against unreported catch and illegal discards has been delayed by the recent elections of the European Parliament that will likely not be able to vote on the new legislative proposal before 2020 and will then have to negotiate the text with the national governments gathering in the EU Council.

The perpetuation of unreported discards may lead scientists to under-estimate the risk faced by the most overfished species like cod. “In our annual advice we recommend TACs based on a level of fish mortality that takes into account the projected share of discards in the total landed catches,” Cardinale said. “If fishermen continue to illegally return unwanted fish to the sea rather than landing it, then the basis for our analysis on the mortality and the health conditions of fish stocks, and therefore, our advice on TACs no longer works properly”.

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