“Save the fish to save the fishermen”

“If I were a banker I would say our fish stocks are underperforming assets. This reform concerns everybody: fishermen, coastal populations, retailers, consumers and taxpayers,” writes commissioner Maria Damanaki in an op-ed on the day of the Commission’s proposal for CFP reform.

Three out of four fish stocks are overexploited in the European Union; catches are only a fraction of what they used to be in the nineties – and still dipping year after year. Today, Europe has to rely on imports for two-thirds of its fish. Somewhere we have gone wrong.

If we don’t act, we will lose one fish stock after the other, with a possible chain reaction for the ecosystem that is hard to predict.

And this will bring an ever-growing economic pressure on our fishing industry, which already now shows severe signs of vulnerability to outside factors, such as peaks in fuel prices. If things do not change, in the future we will lose jobs for good, and not only among fishermen: the processing industry, transport, port infrastructures, auctions and retailers will be equally affected.

If I were a banker I would say our fish stocks are underperforming assets. Instead, I want a capital of healthier fish stocks giving rich interests, in the form of landings, to our fishing industry. I want to maximise the economic return to fishing communities.

To achieve this, we need to go through a deep reform of our Common Fisheries Policy. We can keep fishing. But we have to manage each fish stock in such a way that we can get maximum financial gains while still keeping the stock sustainable.

Our fleet is “obese” – and our efforts to slim it down has not given us results. Wasting tax-payers money in harmful subsidies has to stop. We need to reduce overcapacity and shrink the fleet. So, we are introducing a new system of tradable concessions to fish the public stocks. This system would work at national level only, so as to avoid buy-out of a fleet by another country and has already proven to be effective: for instance in Denmark the demersal fleet was shrunk by 30% and the pelagic one by 50%.

This would also help reduce discards, which is unethical, unacceptable and certainly not justifiable to consumers anymore. I want to put an end to discarding, therefore all catches have to be landed. But if a skipper, on his way to port, sees that he has more cod than his quota permits, he will still be able to buy quota from other fishermen, so that he can profit of all his catches.

Reforming the European fisheries policy means also changing the decision-making and making it more effective. At present, even the most detailed technical decisions – like: what mesh size can fishermen use for catching sole off the coast of Dover – are jointly taken at the highest political level in the European machinery: the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

By contrast to that, I am looking for regionalisation, a management based on results rather than methods: the Parliament and Council will continue to set long-term plans, with specific, science-based objectives, like keeping the fish stocks at a good level and so on. But it would then be for those countries that have an interest in the fish stock to get together and agree on the specific measures needed to reach the objectives.

The choice of instrument is up to them; what counts for us is that they do achieve the objective, not how they achieve it. The EU would be the lighthouse, showing the way. But EU countries, regions and industry, including Fishermen’s organisations – which should be involved and be given responsibility – would be the ones steering the ship. Last but not least, we are working toward a new generation of sustainable fisheries agreements with third countries and these will be centred on the same principles of sustainability and conservation as at home.

Although we are the world’s largest importer of fish and fisheries products, in terms of value, Europe is a big fishing power. Yet the US, Australia, New Zealand and Norway are already way ahead of us in adopting modern, sustainable policies that deliver good results for both the industry and the oceans. The EU simply cannot afford to be so far behind on sustainability.

This reform concerns everybody: fishermen, coastal populations, retailers, consumers and taxpayers. I’m sure that together we can make the common fisheries policy fit for today’s – and tomorrow’s – environmental and economic challenges.

Maria Damanaki
Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
13 July 2011

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