Can the new reformed CFP protect fish stocks?

We publish here the introduction to a discussion initiated by the journalist, Karl Mathiesen, in The Guardian on 17th December 2013, along with a link to the comments that this discussion generated online, concerning the question whether the reformed Common Fisheries Policy is capable of protecting fish stocks.

Mr. Mathiesen opened the discussion by stating: “New fisheries reforms aimed at making Europe’s fleets sustainable passed the EU Parliament last week [December 2013]. The legislation will mean science will overrule economic interests when deciding fish quotas. But questions have been raised about how easy the reforms will be to implement and police.

“Under the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), fishing quotas will be tied to the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Conservation science will effectively set catch limits, which had previously been subject to political negotiations.

A trawler plies the North Sea for Coalfish. Fisheries for this species and around 150 others are controlled by the EU.

A trawler plies the North Sea for coalfish. Fisheries for this species and around 150 others are controlled by the EU. Negotiations on catch limits between the union and non-member states such as Norway have resulted in over-exploitation in recent years.
Photograph: Action Press/Rex Features

“In addition to tightening catch limits, the new CFP introduced a discard ban. Fleets routinely throw back large quantities of fish in order to conform with quotas. This practice can lead to half the catch being jettisoned, dead, to the sea floor.

“But the laws will not come into effect until 2015. Meanwhile, European politicians are meeting in Brussels today [17th December] to negotiate the amount of fish countries can take from the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean next year. This will be the last time member countries will be allowed to exceed the MSY. This has led to concerns that 2014 will become a last-minute bonanza for the fishing industry.

“The European Commission and Council of Ministers meet each December to decide on the total allowable catch (TAC) for each of the 150 fish species caught commercially in the EU. The Commission drafts a proposed TAC based on scientific survey of each fish stock. The MSY is a measure which details how much fishing a species can maintain while maintaining a stable population.

“The December meetings are known for their horse-trading approach to the commission proposals. Each year the member states on the Council push their economic agendas, which has led to consistent overfishing. Between 1987 and 2011, the TAC was on average 33% higher than recommended by scientists.

“The CFP reforms have been received with acclamation, but how effective will they be? And how easily can they be implemented? Today I will be speaking to scientists, politicians, NGOs and you to find out if Europe is on the way to fishing sustainably. I will also bring you updates on the annual ‘shouting match’ in Brussels.

Source and Note: For the full text of this item and in order to see the discussion which this introduction generated, see

Marinet submitted the following comments to Mr. Mathiesen on 28th December 2013:

Dear Mr. Mathiesen,

I write on behalf of Marinet, the Marine Network ( to firstly congratulate you on a first class piece of journalism in The Guardian Ecoaudit column [] on 17th December regarding fish stocks in our seas and the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, and secondly to offer some observations which you may find helpful.

On the matter of your article on 17th December, may I say that is is very rare to encounter journalism undertaken with such care and thoroughness. As a result, you managed to bring to the table a very wide range of views and some insightful thinking which should help to inform the debate considerably. Please continue with this mission. It is most valuable.

On the matter of what was said by some of your contributors, Callum Roberts is totally correct when he says that fish stocks will not be restored effectively until marine protected areas (marine reserves) are used to protect stocks; and, he is also correct in his observation that the new CFP contains a power to create such reserves (it had this power before the present reforms) but there is no obligation upon Member States to use it. The UK government’s present power to create Marine Conservation Zones (under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 20090 and its weak-minded implementation of these powers is illustrative of the feeble commitment at the highest level to serious conservation measures.

On the question of whether science will underpin future CFP decisions, especially those regarding the definition of “maximum sustainable yield” and quotas issued with reference to commitments to observe MSY, we think the debate will continue to run. Already the UK Minister George Eustice is on record as saying that the science on North Sea cod stocks is inconsistent with good management practices, see and the definition of what constitutes a stock in a “healthy condition” (the cardinal reference point for MSY) is being watered down by the EU and Member States via the definition for Descriptor 3 (Fish and Shellfish stocks) of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, see

The comment by Andrew Kuyk, Food and Drink Federation, in your column is fundamentally correct: conservation policy must be made the yardstick for setting future catch levels, and that fish stocks are a renewable resource which should be maximised. The truth of this has been underlined by the New Economics Foundation, see

What remains somewhat ambiguous is the actual, scientifically assessed health of EU fish stocks. Maria Damanaki is quoted as saying that there are some 150 species of fish/shellfish in EU seas — efforts by us via ICES to establish the full detail of this statement remain unproductive so far. However, what is clear is that the scientists (ICES) are able to offer an opinion about the health of stocks in only about 50% of cases — the absence of data serving to prohibit the ability to proffer an opinion. Moreover, the EU has taken no action to require that Member States collect the data for unassessed stocks — the legal obligation to collect this information lies with the Member State in whose seas the stock resides.

Thus when the EU Commission (re. M. Damanaki) asserts that 27 stocks will be fished at MSY levels by 2014, and 30 stocks by 2015, and with all stocks by 2020 — there must be a strong degree of scepticism towards these statements. Quite simply, insufficient scientific data exists in the near-majority of stocks which prevents an opinion about the health of the stock being formed and, therefore, what a maximum sustainable yield should be.

So, what is a sensible policy for the Common Fisheries Policy?

Marinet has argued consistently throughout the CFP reform process that the CFP must be founded on the principle of the restoration of “fish food security” — the ability of EU nations to meet their own needs for fish from their own stocks, year after year. The degree to which we have lost this ability has been documented by the New Economics Foundation [we can only meet our needs for 6 months of each year, see] and by Marinet with respect to the North Sea, see We believe that this principle — food security — is self evident as a fundamental principle. It has not yet been accepted by the EU or its Member States, however.

In order to restore fish food security (with all the consequential benefits for the marine ecosystem, too) one has to rebuild stocks to the maximum, or near maximum, levels of abundance that current ecological conditions will permit. To achieve this, one has to protect the spawning and nursery grounds of stocks from fishing so that reproductive success is maximised and the age profile of stocks is restored (the older the fish, the more fertile the individual becomes). At present, spawning and nursery grounds are often intensively fished because fish aggregate in these areas in order to breed. Therefore closed areas have to be employed as a routine management tool and be centred on these areas. Further, the CFP (via the subsidies system — European Maritime and Fisheries Fund which has close to 1 billion Euros available to it annually) must act to re-employ displaced fishermen as the new managers of these closed areas whilst stocks are rebuilt. Thereby fishermen retain an income (to meet mortgage payments on their vessels), develop a financial interest in the use of conservation policies, and acquire a future with regenerated stocks and thus restored access to a livelihood which is currently moving towards extinction.

Does the new CFP provide access to this type of future, as outlined here ?

Alas, no. The restoration of fish food security has been ignored. The definition of MSY that is being developed and deployed goes nowhere near restoring stocks to maximum levels of abundance that ecological conditions will permit, and does nothing about the restoration of the age profile of stocks — a key feature of genuine conservation. The use of closed areas is “voluntary” and possesses no focus on spawning and nursery grounds. And, the development of a re-vitalised industry, both in terms of stocks available to be fished and consequential economic yield, has received scarcely a mention.

Key to this whole reform process is fishing subsidies, and their reform (still currently before the EU governmental bodies (Parliament, Council and Commission). It is estimated that around 80% of EU fishing vessels are uneconomic if they were not in receipt of subsidy payments i.e. they would go bankrupt, and the huge fishing pressure (over-fishing) which they create would disappear. Note: vessels could still be kept at sea via subsidies if subsidies are re-allocated from production (fishing) to conservation (management and the rebuilding of stocks).

Furthermore, whether one goes with a CFP reform of the type that we, Marinet, advocate or the type currently agreed in July by the Parliament, Council and Commission, a key use of subsidies must be for monitoring and data collection (CCTV, GSP and catch records). Will the reformed European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) allocate sufficient money to ensure that all vessels are fitted with CCTV/GSP and data recording procedures? If this does not occur, then any reform based on MSY and the abolition of discards will become meaningless. The free for all will simply continue.

I hope these thoughts developed by Marinet and its members are of some value.

Stephen Eades.

On behalf of Marinet

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