Landing the blame: overfishing in the Atlantic 2018

Uncovering the EU Member States most responsible for setting fishing quotas above scientific advice

Fisheries ministers risk damaging our natural resources beyond repair by consistently setting fishing limits above scientific advice. This is our third year running a series of briefings to identify which Member States are standing in the way of more fish, more profits, and more jobs for European citizens.

Food for an additional 89 million EU citizens. An extra €1.6 billion in annual revenue. Over 20,000 new jobs across the continent. Far from being a pipe dream, all of this could be a reality, if we paid more attention to one of Europe’s most significant natural resources – our seas. If EU waters were properly managed – with damaged fish stocks rebuilt above levels that could support their maximum sustainable yield (MSY) – we could enjoy their full potential within a generation.

Fishing limits vs scientific advice

Every year, fisheries ministers have an opportunity to make this a reality when they agree on a total allowable catch (TAC) for commercial fish stocks. Scientific bodies, predominantly the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), provide information about the state of most stocks and recommend maximum catch levels. But for many years, this scientific advice has not been heeded.

Our historical analysis of agreed TACs for all EU waters between 2001 and 2017 shows that, on average, seven out of every 10 TACs were set above scientific advice. While the percentage by which TACs were set above advice declined throughout this period (from 42% to 7%), the proportion of TACs set above advice did not.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that entered into force in 2014 aims to restore and maintain populations of fish stocks above levels capable of supporting MSY. The corresponding exploitation rate was to be achieved by 2015 where possible and by 2020 at the latest for all stocks. Following scientific advice is essential if we are to achieve this goal, end overfishing, and restore fish stocks to healthy levels.

Agreements behind closed doors

The negotiations over TACs are held by the Agricultural and Fisheries configuration of the EU Council of Ministers. These negotiations are not public, only their outcomes are. This lack of transparency means that ministers are not on the hook when they ignore scientific advice and give priority to short-term interests that risk the health of fish stocks. This briefing, a continuation of the Landing the Blame series, reveals which Member States and ministers are behind decisions that go against the EU’s long-term interests. This conclusion is reached by analysing the outcomes of the negotiations and calculating which Member States end up with TACs above scientific advice. The key assumption is that these Member States are the main drivers of overfishing, either because they have been actively pushing for fishing limits to be set above scientific advice, or they have failed to prevent such limits being put in place. Freedom of Information Requests have revealed that the results of Landing the Blame correspond well with the Member State positions heading into the Council negotiations.

The Atlantic 2018 TACs

During the December 2017 negotiations, ministers set the TACs for the majority of commercial EU fish species for 2018 – a critical moment with significant implications for European fishers’ livelihoods and the sustainable management of the natural resource. This analysis covers 124 TAC decisions made (or confirmed) at this meeting. It shows that where comparable scientific advice was available, 57 TACs were set above advice, amounting to over 206,000 tonnes of excess TAC. This is continuing the trend of permitting overfishing in EU waters with Atlantic TACs set 9% above scientific advice on average – a small increase from the 2017 TACs (8%). The earlier negotiations for the 2018 Baltic Sea TACs also set them above scientific advice, with Landing the Blame Baltic 2018 reporting that four out of 10 TACs were set above scientific advice.

For the 2017 Atlantic TACs, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and the Netherlands top the league table of Member States with the highest percentage of their TAC in excess of scientific advice (Table 1). These Member States were involved with TAC decisions that allow fishing at 18%, 15%, 8% and 8%, respectively, above levels that scientists have determined to be consistent with the sustainable management of these fish stocks.

The UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Denmark are the worst offenders in terms of the total tonnage of TAC set above advice. Ministers representing these Member States have received the largest TAC increases above scientific advice in terms of tonnes and are therefore the most responsible for impeding the transition to sustainable fisheries in the EU.

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