The EU Fishes for Sustainable Seas

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Chris Furlong / Getty

A trawler some 70 miles in the Atlantic off the north coast of Scotland.

If you need an example of how thoroughly national politics can still trump the notion of common European interest, look no further than the three-day meeting in Brussels of fisheries ministers that kicked off on Monday.

Every year in late December, the ministers meet for a marathon session to decide the following year's fishing quotas. The European Commission typically points to scientific evidence showing a collapse in key catches, and suggests that quotas should be slashed across the board. And just as predictably, individual governments within the E.U. ignore these proposals, and raise the quotas — usually around 50% higher.

It is, conservationists say, a policy to fish Europe out of business. "Mocking scientific advice has become standard practice in the decisions made by the European fisheries ministers," says World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Fisheries Policy Officer Carol Phua.

The Commission — using figures from the Denmark-based International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) — has suggested there should be a 25% cut in cod catches for most E.U. waters. Other recommendations include a 32% cut in blue whiting, a 15% cut in North Sea plaice and sole, a 41% cut in North Sea herring, and a full closure of the Bay of Biscay for anchovy fishing.

But when E.U. ministers meet to thrash out the quotas, concerns about the survival of stocks comes in conflict with sustaining the livelihoods of Europe's fishermen. Although the fishing community has seen its own numbers shrink drastically in recent years, its efficiency has improved dramatically thanks to innovations like sonar, trawler freezers, and driftnets up to 1.5 miles (2.5km) wide. The result has been a vacuuming of fish across the seas and a collapse of key stocks.

But these quotas have also upset the irascible fishing community, which claims talk of dwindling stocks is exaggerated. In France, trawlermen have gone on strike to protest rising fuel costs, which have cut further into their profit margins. And at the annual fish quota sessions in Brussels, E.U. governments have shown themselves more responsive to the grumbles of their fishermen than the broader concerns about the state of marine resources.

The E.U. has programs to retire fishing vessels in the E.U. fleet, and offers compensation and retraining for those forced out of work. But it has not done enough to halt the decline in stocks, say critics of the current system. Quotas were first introduced with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), agreed in Brussels in 1983, and set up a system of quotas for each E.U. member state. But the system is poorly enforced, and cannot maintain sustainable stocks. Also, millions of tons of dead fish are thrown back in the sea because they cannot be landed due to the quota rules. Earlier this month, the E.U.'s Court of Auditors condemned the CFP for incomplete and unreliable catch data, ineffectual sanctions and inadequate inspection systems. But since the CFP is mainly implemented by national governments, there are fewer incentives to crack down on errant fishermen. "Most stocks remain overfished," E.U. Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said before the meeting. "We must make further efforts if we are to achieve progress towards sustainable fisheries."

For example, North Sea cod is one of the many stocks under heavy pressure from overfishing. Yet because ICES noted a slight rise in the number of young cod in the North Sea, ministers are expected to actually raise the quota. "The end result of higher cod quotas will be a total failure of the management of this species," said WWF's Carol Phua. "Scientists have recently announced a slight improvement of the cod stock, because of the growing number of young cod. But full recovery of the stock needs time and it is not by allowing fishermen to take more young fish, through higher quotas, that the situation will improve. In fact, with juvenile fish being caught, in few years the situation will just be worse."

Critics warn that the E.U. could follow Canada, whose fishing industry was ravaged in the early 1990s when Atlantic cod stocks were wiped out as a result of overfishing. If that happens, it would be a sad indictment for Europe, and a triumph of national selfishness over conservation.