What is the CFP?


The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the European Union’s way of organising how EU fishing activities should take place – who can fish where, how, when. Europe’s large and varied seascape is a shared resource with equal access for all EU member states, so the CFP needs to provide the rules for management of fishing activities in order to prevent overfishing and provide economic and social security for fishing communities. The CFP also applies to EU vessels fishing elsewhere in the world, as well as markets in fishing products and aquaculture. Since fishing activities also have significant impact on marine habitats and other species in the oceans, the CFP also is obliged to ensure fishing has minimum impact on the marine environment. Practically all decisions on fisheries policy are taken at the EU level by Member State Ministers and the European Parliament and all EU member states have to abide by the same regulations.

The CFP today is a complex policy with over 300 pieces of legislation governing the EU’s 85 000 vessels, from tiny motor boats with a small net venturing just 10 kilometres from port and one fisherman onboard, to 140 metre factory vessels operating across the globe on the high seas and in the waters of other non-EU countries.

Note: This article describes the current CFP that is in place as of February 2012, i.e. before the reform has entered into force.

The basic objectives and instruments that can be used to manage EU fisheries are set out in the CFP Framework Regulation: Council Regulation No 2371/2002 on the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources under the Common Fisheries Policy. This framework regulation was last reviewed in 2002 and is being reviewed again in 2011–2012.

The broad objective of the CFP is to ensure the use of fisheries resources which is economically, socially and environmentally viable and policy makers currently have to develop policy which balances the obligation to fish sustainably and protect fish stocks while ensuring that fishing communities remain profitable.

The policy can be divided into 4 main pillars:

Conservation Policy – the management of how fishing takes place to control how much is taken out of the seas and how it is done, to prevent overfishing and damage to the marine environment

Structural Policy – the rules to ensure there is a balance between the amount of fishing and the fish resources available. Also included in this strand are the development of aquaculture, processing, and modernisation of the sector

Market Policy – the rules and initiatives to guarantee fish supply, stabilise prices, oversee quality of products and maintain reasonable salaries in the sector

External Policy – the government of the activities of EU vessels outside home waters, both on the high seas and in the waters of other countries.

Policy makers have a number of tools at their disposal to regulate fishing and related activities. Below is an outline of the principal ones:

TACs and quotas

The Total Allowable Catch, or TAC, is the maximum amount of a specific fish species that be taken from an area in a given time. TACs for many common fish stocks are agreed by Ministers (after receiving advice from scientists and a proposal from the European Commission), usually on an annual basis. The TAC is then divided between the EU member states based on relative stability. Under the principle of relative stability, which is a key element in the CFP, member states are allocated a fixed share of the TAC for a fish stock, based on their fleet’s past record of fishing activity, otherwise called their historical share of the catch.

Technical measures

Technical conservation measures are intended to manage how fish are caught in order to try as far as possible to only catch the fish being targeted and avoid others, such as young and unwanted fish, mammals and birds, so-called by-catch. Measures include restrictions on the type of net that can be used, minimum landing size for fish and closed areas.

EU Fleet Management

The CFP should achieve a balance between fleet capacity and the amount of fish resources. The EU fleet is too large for the available resources and fleet management measures are in place to encourage reductions in the size of the EU fleet. National fishing fleets are limited by regulations on the total capacity of the fleet. Capacity withdrawn with public aid will not be replaced and the capacity ceiling is reduced by the amount of capacity withdrawn with subsidies. Also, any new capacity should be matched by an equivalent capacity without financial aid. However, although member states are obliged to adjust their fishing capacity to match available resources, there are no binding fleet reduction targets.

Financial measures

The financial instrument for the CFP is the European Fisheries Fund (EFF). With a budget of 3.8 billion euros for 2007-2013 the aim of fishing subsidies is to support achievement of the objectives of the CFP. The major strand of EFF is the support to the capacity reduction objectives of the CFP by financing the removal of vessels from the fleet (decommissioning) in order to reduce its size. Other areas where EFF can be spent are: strengthening competitiveness of sector, sustainable development of coastal regions and measures to promote environmental protection.


Compliance with the rules and prevention of illegal fishing is an important element of the CFP. The EU Control Regulation which entered into force in January 2010, is designed to ensure that the rules of the CFP are met.  Although enforcement of fisheries rules is the responsibility of the Member States, the Regulation aims to strengthen the role of EU inspectors, improve traceability of fisheries products and give powers to the Commission to withhold subsidies from member states failing to apply CFP rules. The EU Fisheries Control Agency, opened in 2007, works to coordinate inspection and control across the EU to make it more effective.

The EU regulation on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing also entered into force in January 2010. The objective is to combat illegal fishing by controlling landings of third country fishing vessels in EU ports and trade in marine fisheries products in and out of the EU.

Environmental considerations

There is a legal obligation to protect the marine environment under the CFP. The policy should take a “precautionary approach” when taking measures and develop an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. And measures should be taken to reverse the impacts of fisheries on the marine environment.

The CFP policy also has to take into account and meet obligations and objectives of EU environmental policies which concern the marine environment. For example, under the EU Marine Framework Directive EU member states need to achieve “Good Environmental Status” of EU waters by 2020. The CFP will therefore have to be aligned to meet the objectives of the Marine Framework Directive.

International relations

EU vessels operate across the globe on the high seas and in the waters of third countries. Since the EU has exclusive competence for fisheries, the European Commission negotiates, on behalf of the EU, bilateral “Fisheries Partnership Agreements” with third country governments. These agreements entitle EU vessels to fish there. Often fishing rights are granted in exchange for financial payment by the EU, as is the case with the agreements with many West African states. Sometimes they are an exchange of fishing rights, as is the case with the agreement with Norway.

The high seas belong to no state and groups of countries often come together to organise how fisheries should take place in these areas. These Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) provide a framework for international discussion and agreement on how fisheries in these areas should be managed. Representatives of the European Commission participate in those RFMOs where EU vessels are active.


1957 – Treaty of Rome states the idea that there should be a common policy for fisheries (CFP).

1970 – Principle agreed of equal access to all member states waters except for the coastal band

1976 – Member States extend fishing rights from 12 to 200 nautical miles in line with international developments

1983 – CFP formally established. First basic regulation agreed and introduction of TACs and quotas and structural policy

1992 – First review of the CFP. Attempt to redress balance between stocks and resources

2002 – Second review of the CFP. Revised Basic Regulation, setting out that the CFP should protect and conserve living marine resources and minimise impact of fishing on marine ecosystems. Reform of structural measures with phasing out of public funding for vessel building and modernisation. Creation of Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) to involve stakeholders more in policy making. The current CFP is operating under this basic regulation.

2012 – Third revision of CFP. Conservation and fleet policy pillars to be reviewed, as a legal minimum, by 31 December 2012.


Twenty-seven years after CFP was formally established, it is one of the EU policies that gives rise to the most controversy and heated debate. No one is happy with its achievements and member states, fishermen, environmentalists, scientists and third countries all agree with the need for fundamental reform.

The CFP has failed to ensure the EU fisheries are environmentally, economically or socially sustainable:

  • Before the reform, the Commission itself pointed out that 88 percent of Europe’s fish stocks were overexploited compared to 25 percent globally. According to updated figures presented by the Commission in 2011, 82 percent of the stocks in the Mediterranean and 63 percent in the Atlantic are overfished.
  • Despite spending millions in subsidies on fleet reduction plans there are still too many vessels chasing too few fish – with estimates at a fleet 40 percent too large. Overall, the EU fleet has only been reduced by about 2-3 percent per year since the last reform in 2002, according to the Commission in the Mid Term Review of the CFP. However, it is estimated this small reduction has been neutralised by technological advances and increased efficiency in the fishing fleet. This “technological creep” is calculated to be in the range of 2 to 4 percent per year.
  • The EU fails to supply even half of the fish consumed in the EU: 60 percent of fish products are imported from third countries.
  • TACs and quotas are often agreed in excess of scientific advice. According to figures in a Commission policy statement, TACs decided by the Council are on average about 48 percent higher than scientists recommend in order for catches to be sustainable. A group of scientists in November 2011 concluded that the Council set TACs above the advice in 68 percent of the cases.
  • Much of the EU fleet is not economically viable and is operating at a loss or with very small profits. According to the Commission Communication on Fishing Opportunities for 2010, between 2003 and 2007 the profitability  of many of the fleets that showed a profit would have been negative if you deduct additional revenues received from direct subsidies, estimated to be in the range of between 10 and 20 percent. In 2009 the entire EU fleet was making a 4.6 percent loss when direct income subsidies were not taken into account.
  • There is a lack of progress to reverse the impact of fisheries on the marine environment with only a tiny fraction of EU seas protected from harmful fishing practices.


A number of reasons have been put forward for why the CFP has not achieved its objectives. Among them are:

  • The CFP has a broad remit with contradictory objectives and no hierarchy between them. Policy makers are therefore obliged to try and find a compromise between environmental protection and social and economic needs;
  • Politicians make decisions based on short term needs rather than taking a longer term view of the benefits;
  • The policy is too centralised and top down to function efficiently across the diverse EU marine regions;
  • Economic subsidies have allowed fleets to continue operating even though fish stocks have been declining.
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How the CFP works

  • The role of the Council of Ministers
  • The role of the European Parliament
  • The role of the European Commission
  • What is the CFP?

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