The EU’s risky move on (un)sustainable fisheries

Pressures on the EU from industrial fishery lobbies to maintain business as usual in the Western Mediterranean may put both fish stocks and small fishermen’s livelihoods at risk, while also undermining the economic sustainability of the industry itself, as we reveal in a three-part investigation.

Published On: April 12th, 2019
The EU’s risky move on (un)sustainable fisheries_62ccb0f8553db.png
The EU’s risky move on (un)sustainable fisheries_62ccb0f8553db.png

Photo: Pxhere

The EU’s risky move on (un)sustainable fisheries

Pressures on the EU from industrial fishery lobbies to maintain business as usual in the Western Mediterranean may put both fish stocks and small fishermen’s livelihoods at risk, while also undermining the economic sustainability of the industry itself, as we reveal in a three-part investigation.

Photo: Pxhere

Both fish and fishermen may lose the battle that has opposed them since ancient times in the Mediterranean, which has now become the most overfished sea in the world , due to constantly increasing food demand. Some 230,000 tonnes of Mediterranean seafood are discarded every year (about 18 percent of total catches), including species or sizes of fish unsuitable for the market. On 10 April, the EU scientific committee on fisheries released a report confirming the negative trends of Mediterranean fish stocks.

New developments in this blue battle could end up inflicting long-term environmental and economic damage. The cost for consumers could also prove serious, though this is still hard to predict.

What is undoubted is that the new EU multi-annual management plan for demersal species (those found at the bottom of the sea) in the Western Mediterranean will not end overfishing by 2020. In breach of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy which came into force in 2014, the sustainable fishing deadline has been extended to 2025. The regulation voted by the European Parliament on April 4 fails to impose the severe restrictions on trawling hoped for by conservationists to counter as decidedly as possible the dramatic decline of fish stocks. The downward trend, combined with underpriced imports from overseas, has triggered a boomerang effect on the Southern-European fishery industry. Persistent financial and job losses have been affecting the fleets in the coastal countries comprising what is defined as the West European Mediterranean: Italy, France and Spain.

Geographical sub-areas in the western Mediterranean Sea (Source: European Commission)

In all three countries, endangered demersal species represent 90 percent of all landed catches, and 80 percent of these are exploited in excess of sustainable levels. These species include popular items on seafood menus such as hake, red mullet and shrimp.

Such tasty prey is not only a market product, but also a livelihood for thousands of people who live on artisanal fishery. Using small, traditional passive nets, these fishermen are increasingly outcompeted by commercial fleets.

Navigating the often murky waters of scientific estimates and business accounts is a complicated task. The uncertainty of expert analysis ends up offering a broad, and even dangerous, political leverage to legislators. Based on our findings, we have developed a series of stories, exposing the contentious issues which could end up triggering a snowball effect: the first is on EU mislegislation, the second on environmental disruption, and the third on the profitability pitfall. 

Chapter I – Mislegislation

Lobby groups water down EU restrictions on trawling

The new regulation that will enter into force as of 2020 undermines the key measures that the European Commission had proposed in 2018 to reduce the impact of bottom trawling on marine ecosystems. This fishing method is the main man-made cause of fish stock reduction. Indeed, undersized specimens whose sale is forbidden, as well as the youngest and most reproductive specimens, are caught and killed in large numbers. Moreover, large weighted nets dragged deep across the sea floor cut a swathe through habitats where fish usually feed and reproduce.

The text that was eventually adopted is the result of a compromise reached in February between the European Parliament and the Council, the other legislative body of the EU, gathering national ministries responsible for specific domains (fisheries, on this occasion).

The goal of the Commission proposal was to harmonize divergent national regulations in order to coordinate fish stock protection, while ensuring a level playing field for fishermen in Italy, France and Spain. The proposed regulation is intended to complement the first and rather outdated EU Mediterranean Regulation from 2007, as well as the national actions taken in 2016 as part of the MedFish4Ever initiative .

These initiatives have had a positive impact: the percentage of overexploited fish stocks decreased by 10 percentage points, from 88 percent in 2014 to 78 percent in 2016. However, the latest report by FAO, “The State of Mediterranean and Black Sea Fisheries” , published in late 2018, warns that more effort is needed to ensure long-term fish stock sustainability.

A game of lobbies 

The new EU plan for the Western Mediterranean is intended as a response to this warning. But its effectiveness has been weakened by behind-the-scenes manoeuvres orchestrated by Italian, French and Spanish trawling lobbies during the decision-making process.

Their strategy was coordinated within the Rome-based Mediterranean Advisory Council (MEDAC) , an EU-funded consultative body bringing together a variety of socio-economic stakeholders, including both industrial and artisanal fishers, NGOs, trade unions, consumers and sports/recreational associations. MEDAC’s mission is to provide EU institutions with fishery policy recommendations agreed by all its members.

In spite of its obligation to impartiality, MEDAC’s secretariat played an active role on behalf of a continental business trio: the Italian Alleanza delle Cooperative, the French Comité national des pêches maritimes et des élevages marins and the Spanish Confederación Española de Pesca. We obtained access to an email conversation from late November 2018 proving that the three national associations of industrial fishery used MEDAC staff, meaning taxpayers’ money, to co-draft a common position addressed to the Parliament. 

At the beginning of December, João Aguiar Machado, the Director General of DG Mare , the European Commission’s department responsible for fishery matters, sent a letter to MEDAC Chairman Giampaolo Buonfiglio. Machado warned Buonfiglio that such misconduct should never happen again, but did not take any concrete action, being satisfied with the procedural corrections promised by the MEDAC Chairman and subsequently agreed upon by all members of the consultative body.

An interesting twist in the affair: Buonfiglio is also the chairman of Confcoopesca, the fishery section of Alleanza Cooperative Italiane, joining both industrial and artisanal fishers and sitting in MEDAC assemblies. “The association that I represent, together with our French and Spanish colleagues, used MEDAC internal communication only as a way to share our common concerns”, Buonfiglio commented. “We then publicly circulated our joint statement through our respective channels, not as an official MEDAC advice”.  On November 26 last year the trio’s co-signed message landed in the hands of MEPs, urging them to postpone the vote right on the eve of the first reading. The same day, the Spanish industry association forwarded the email exchange initiated by the MEDAC secretariat on behalf of Lega Cooperative Italiane to Spanish MEP Clara Aguilera. A member of Spain’s Socialist Party, Aguilera is the Western Mediterranean Plan rapporteur in the fishery committee.

On Novembre 27 a large cross-party majority in the committee, led by the People’s Party, accepted to freeze the file until after the Christmas break. This allowed enough time to work out amendments that met industrial fishery demands for softer rules and eventually matched the positions expressed by the Italian, French and Spanish governments in the Council.

The big against the small

One of the MEPs who strongly supported these amendments is Rosa d’Amato from the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Stars Movement). In her opinion, the initial Commission’s proposal would have kicked small players out of the market. “The economic and social sustainability of small-scale fishing can and must go hand in hand with environmental sustainability”,  D’Amato said. The problem is that the relevant EU legislation considers small–scale (or artisanal) fishing only that carried out by fishing vessels not using towed fishing gear, including trawls. Instead, the Western Mediterranean Plan aims to regulate only fishing activity that involves trawling. So, what D’Amato is advocating as small-scale fishing is in reality small trawling.  

“Without appropriate restrictions, even small trawling is by no means a sustainable technique, since it is not selective in terms of either species or size”, Nicolas Fournier, policy advisor at Oceana Europe said. “Contrary to their public discourse, both the Italian industry and Ms D’Amato, as well as other MEPs, only defend commercial trawling fleets at the expense of more sustainable artisanal fishers whose interests are not represented in any of the proposed amendments”. A report by FAO confirms that the small-scale fishing sector, which employs most fishers, causes least environmental damage. However, some scientists argue that thousands of small artisanal and recreational vessels could have a greater impact on the ecosystem than a few large trawlers, and thus should also be regulated.

Outraged by the institutional manipulations in favor of lobby groups, Oceana decided to withdraw its membership from MEDAC at the end of March. “Efforts to improve Mediterranean governance through this body have proven futile”, said Fournier. “The recent abuse was just the last drop in a series of malfunctions:  there is no external scrutiny deterring wrongdoings, and opinions from minority groups are not fully taken into account in the advice adopted by the MEDAC assembly, where industrial fishery representatives have the majority of votes”. Worthy of note is the fact that the MEDAC advice released in 2017 was intentionally cautious with regard to trawling restrictions proposed for the Western Mediterranean, clearly indicating the divergent views between different stakeholders.

Despite its disappointment, Oceana encouraged MEPs to approve the final version of the Western Mediterranean plan, considering it a better option than no plan at all. However, Fournier still insists that “the changes negotiated behind closed doors by the Council and the Parliament put at risk the sustainability target set out in the management plan”.

The industry takes a pragmatic approach. “We are aware that we need to preserve fishing resources for our own benefit, and in fact our fleets complain that some stocks in a few areas seems to be overexploited”, Buonfiglio said. “Nevertheless, before moving to more drastic restrictions, it is necessary to assess the results of the multi-annual management plan and to prove that existing measures are ineffective and that the only possible way to safeguard fish stocks is further reducing both fishing effort and the use of bottom trawls”.

A well-meaning but flawed plan

Indeed, the central dispute concerns what is called, in technical terms, “fishing effort”. This measure defines the number of days that each trawling vessel is allowed to spend at sea in a whole year. Scientists say: in order to save fish stocks, fishermen on trawlers need to save their fishing time. In line with this principle, the Commission proposed that every year the Council should reduce the fishing effort based on advice from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) , an independent body whose members are nominated by the Commission itself. The STECF is tasked with recommending a specific effort reduction for each of the 8 geographical sub-areas into which the Western Mediterranean has been divided by the FAO General Fisheries Commission For the Mediterranean

This science-driven management is sound in theory. But the reality will likely be different. Indeed, the final agreement already caps the effort-reduction margins: no matter how strict the STECF recommendations are, during the first year (2020) of the plan’s implementation the number of days at sea cannot decrease by more than 10 percent of those recorded during the period between January 1st 2015 and December 31st 2017. And over the following four years (2021-2024), the reduction rate cannot exceed 30 percent. “The maximum possible effort reduction over all five years is therefore 40 percent, which might not be sufficient to prevent a further decrease in the most overfished stocks”, Fournier explains. “So there is no guarantee that a sustainable level of catches will be achieved within the 2025 deadline set in the plan”.

Clara Ulrich, Professor in fisheries management at the Danish National Institute of Aquatic Resources and Chair of the STECF Working Groups supporting the Western Mediterranean Plan, remains somewhat optimistic: “The success of the plan depends on how rapidly fish stock mortality will decrease, and whether governments, after 2024, will commit to reduce fishing effort to the level of the most exploited stock, the hake, meaning an additional reduction of up to 50 percent by 2025, as the plan stipulates”.

According to her, “The current plan represents a trade-off between what would be required to achieve sustainability for the various species, and what was politically acceptable for the three member states (Italy, Spain and France) in the short term”.

For his part, Enrico Brivio, the European Commission’s spokesperson for fisheries, is predictably diplomatic: “the agreement seems to have a wide consensus from Member States, industry and even NGOs and that, as for future impact assessment, we are constantly monitoring the situation of fishing stocks and activities”.

However, there is a risk that the amendments will end up partially neutralizing the reduction of fishing days by allowing more hours of fishing per day. In fact, the maximum allowed daily fishing time has been increased from 12 hours, as proposed by the Commission, to 15 hours, and up to 18 hours if derogations are approved at national level. “We know that Member States will automatically grant the 18 hours for a large part of the fleet, mostly to compensate for the reduced number of days”, Fournier said. “This measure would have made sense if the trawling ban was extended from the current 50 metre limit to 100 metres of depth, as proposed by the Commission, and vessels had to travel for longer to reach the fishing areas”. But the amended plan makes the 100 metre ban binding only within 6 nautical miles from the coast: beyond this distance, trawlers can keep fishing in shallow waters too. “Since trawling was already forbidden within 3 miles by previous legislation, this means that the new rules will move each fleet further offshore by just 3 nautical miles (about 11km) on average”, Fournier said. “This short additional distance does not justify the extra 6 hours of fishing”.

The Commission proposed that the 100 metre ban be enforced every year between May and July, the period when the most endangered species reproduce or increase their adult population. Unfortunately, this period coincides with the summer season, when tourists flood seafood restaurants on the coast and fish demand peaks. No wonder, then, that the final text allows each government to chose the ban period, while keeping it to a maximum of three months a year.

“We insisted on extending the ban to 100 metres, or 8 miles from the shore, all year round, but our proposal was not accepted”,  said Iuri Peri, Project Manager for Italy with Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE), a platform representing artisanal fishers across the Mediterranean. LIFE were aiming to exclude trawlers from larger coastal areas where small fishers could have recovered part of their declining business.

The potential inadequacy of the Western Mediterranean plan, primarily from the environmental perspective, will be debated in the next part of this series.

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