It is always fascinating to see how closely our study topics are related to current policy discussions. In one of our classes, we talked in-depth about fishing quotas and their adverse effects, including discards – this is the part of a fishing vessel’s haul that is a) not profitable enough (being too small and young, or fish for which there is no demand) or b) includes species for which they do not have a quota anymore, meaning they are not allowed to bring them on land. Thus, this “discard” is thrown back overboard, where up to 90% of the fish die (the mortality rates vary broadly by species, however).
In an age of serious overfishing (according to the European Commission, 80% of Mediterranean stocks and 47% of Atlantic ones are overfished), this has been heavily criticized as a harmful and incredibly wasteful practice which hinders the possibility of fish stocks to regenerate (for one reason among many because the smaller fish are the ones that haven’t spawned yet and would be next in line to produce the next generation, but are killed before they can do so.)
In a landmark vote (502 votes to 137, with 27 abstentions), the EU Parliament voted to follow the recommendation by the Fisheries commissioner and to ban all fishing discards as of 2014, forcing fishing vessels to land all their catch.
Then, the undersized fish would be transformed into fish meal (which would only cover landing costs for fishers), whereas all other fish would be counted against the quotas – if individual vessel owners ran out, they would have to buy more quotas in their own member state; if the member state ran out of their quota, they would have to borrow quota allowances from other member states or the overcatch would be counted negatively against the next year’s quota.
The European Commission’s recommendation also suggests helping fishermen to adjust, for example by refitting their ships with nets that have larger meshes, allowing the smaller fish to escape easier. In addition, this measure would also help to make the quota system more adjustable and adapted to the local circumstances (so that the fisherman that lands cod actually gets the cod quota, whereas another one who didn’t catch any could trade his cod quota against a quota of a fish that he landed, for example).
The widely applauded reform backed by the European Parliament would also include the strict adherence to scientifically determined maximum catch allowances and the downsizing of the EU’s overcapacity in fishing vessels. So far, so good, right?
However, the EU has two legislative authorities which both have to agree for policy changes to be implemented – the (elected) Parliament and the European Council of Ministers who represent the individual member states – including the states with fishing communities whose livelihoods depend on EU fisheries policy and who therefore have strong incentives to lobby their home governments against reform.
After a tense, all-night meeting (and 21 hours of negotiation) that repeatedly seemed close to failure, the Council actually approved a version of the Parliament’s bill, phasing out discards beginning in 2014 until 2019 – however, the Ministers agreed that discards could not be eliminated completely, so they allowed for 7% of discards even after the “ban” is fully in place. This caveat has been widely debated – described as a “loophole” by some, and a policy measure that takes into account fishing realities by others.
More than anything, the negotiations showcased the wide divide between Member States in this critical issue. In a sign of discontent with the watered-down measures, Sweden refused to back the final agreement – on the other hand, according to diplomats, ministers had thwarted an attempt by Spain to exempt some species from the ban altogether. Other states that stood strongly behind the blanket ban, according to the Pew commission, were Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Austria. Nations more lenient included France, Portugal and Spain.
This new agreement will now go back to the Parliament for final adoption, but according to the Parliament’s leading negotiator Ulrike Rodust, that approval might be hard to achieve: she was cited as saying
“This exemption is not an exemption but a loophole. Some Member States simply do not want any changes for their fishermen. I do not expect the Parliament to agree to this in the upcoming negotiations.”
So the fight goes into the next round, with a final agreement expected in June. It is notable that this is the first time that the Parliament, previously a rather toothless institution, has the power (which it won with the 2004 Lisbon reforms) and took the initiative to seriously shake up the Fisheries policy.
Bonus: This article by the European Parliament includes a cool infographic that gives you a quick overview of the problem of European fisheries. Everything you want to know about the discard ban can be found in this FAQ by the European Commission, and more information about the planned Fisheries Policy reform on this website.