Will Reform Finally End The Plunder of Europe’s Fisheries?

In recent decades, European fisheries policy has been a slowly unfolding environmental disaster. Pumped up by tens of billions of euros in European Union subsidies, fishing fleets ballooned to 100,000 vessels, including many industrial-scale ships that severely depleted waters in Europe and beyond.

The goal was to prop up a politically powerful fishing industry — regardless of scientific warnings that fish stocks were in peril — and the results have been predictable. Numerous studies have shown that roughly 80 to 90 percent of many European fish stocks are being fished unsustainably. In the Mediterranean Sea, for example, scientists reported last year that 52 of 65 fish stocks are in critical decline. The situation has deteriorated so severely that from 1995 to 2010, fish landings in the EU fell from 8 million to 5 million metric tons.

Now, however, serious reforms are being launched, thanks to Maria Damanaki — a crusading EU Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries — and alarm and outrage in the European Parliament. The parliament voted earlier this month to back Damanaki’s key reforms, including reducing catch quotas to sustainable levels; cutting subsidies and targeting them at fisheries that stay within the so-called “maximum sustainable yield”; ending the practice of fishing boats discarding a quarter of their catch, as they toss back less desirable species for more profitable ones; and tightening up woefully lax or non-existent enforcement of fisheries regulations. Earlier this week, fisheries ministers from member states met in Brussels and accepted some of Damanaki’s proposed changes.

“What we had in the past was an aggressive policy against fish stocks, the oceans, and the environment,” Damanaki said in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “We need to change our policy if we want to continue to eat fish.”

Joining Damanaki in the push for a radical overhaul of EU fisheries policies have been two powerful women in the European Parliament — Ulrike Rodust, a Social Democrat from Germany, and Isabella Lövin, a Green Party member from Sweden. “Damanaki, Rodust, and Lövin are the three strong women behind fisheries reform,” says Rainer Froese, a prominent marine biologist with the Geomar-Helmholtz-Center for Ocean Research in Germany. “Without them, the reform would not have happened. The old boys networks [of fishery interests] would have prevailed. The proposal by the EU parliament marks a historic watershed of fisheries management. Finally, Europe is on its way to implementing sustainable, healthy, and profitable fisheries.”

Though momentum is clearly on the side of Damanaki and the reformers, the battle is far from over. In the coming weeks, the parliament; the Council of Europe, composed of the EU’s 27 member states; and the EU Commission will attempt to forge a joint strategy. The parliament wants to introduce a ban of discards starting in 2014. It sets 2015 as a deadline for managing fish stocks within the bounds of “maximum sustainable yield,” with the aim of beginning to regenerate fish stocks by 2020.

“I’m very confident that we can agree on a text in the first half of 2013,” says Damanaki.

But the thicket of European bureaucracy, coupled with powerful push-back from fishing interests in European countries already experiencing widespread unemployment, guarantees a battle to weaken Damanaki’s and the Parliament’s proposed reforms.

For the complete article, please see environment360.