There is a growing crisis in the European Union fisheries sector. Overfishing has led to depleted stocks and endangered species, prompting new proposals on sustainable fishing and a renewed emphasis on promoting fish farming. One man with a tough task ahead is the EU's Fisheries Commissioner, Dr Joe Borg. He was interviewed in Brussels for just-food.com by David Haworth.

Fish matters to the European Union's (EU) food sector, and if there was one commodity where there are jitters about the future of supplies, it has to be fish. Two EU fisheries emergencies recently highlighted the growing crisis in this area, pushing the common fisheries policy higher up the political agenda, once again sharpening attention on declining stocks similar to the cod "scare" of six months ago.

In the nature of things, little in the fishing industry can be turned round quickly, but there is now a real sense of urgency in the European Commission to prevent, where possible, stocks declining and to put a renewed priority on the promotion of fish farming.

The new man in the hot seat is Dr Joe Borg, EU Commissioner for fisheries, and Malta's first Commission representative. He has been tasked with putting maritime and fisheries issues higher on the EU agenda - in which he has the personal backing of Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

In need of revision

In an interview with just-food.com at his office in Brussels, Borg stressed that the near collapse of a number of marine ecosystems and fishery resources in European waters make action in the sector urgent. "There's no need to wait until the traditional end-of-the-year (EU) council of fisheries ministers," he says, referring to a meeting that takes place in December and usually sets fishing quotas for the following year.

His is a confident voice. Borg is a 53-year-old international lawyer, partly trained at the Universities of Wales and Manchester; he was the author of Malta's Companies Act and for five years served as that country's Minister for Foreign Affairs. He brings, therefore, an unusual and authoritative experience to an increasingly sensitive portfolio.

Borg also promised to be assertive, especially in trying to make fish resources more sustainable. He, for instance, promised a new directive on veterinary legislation and disease prevention in fish farming. It will be presented to the EU Council of Ministers (for fisheries) before the summer. The existing legislation is 13 years old and therefore in need of revision, stressed Borg.

Budget row

And although tougher health rules were likely, making life a little harder in the short term for European fish farmers, he stressed that, should foreign competitors try to take advantage of the EU's introduction of more stringent rules, the Commission would not hesitate to deploy "trade defence measures" to protect Union production. He said that in any case the EU's authorities are certainly cautious about imported products, "the raw materials" as Borg calls them, such as salmon, the recent subject of trade measures against Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Chile. Such measures might ease some long held fears that the quality of fish farmed in the ten new members of the EU, mostly from eastern Europe, but also including Malta, might be substandard, a problem given that their producers now have free access to all EU markets. But Borg claimed that none of those apprehensions had been realised. The EU's standards are the highest in the world, he claimed; and if they were not met by plants in the nations that joined the Union just over a year ago, certification was withheld until they did, he stressed. This was certainly the case in his own country, Malta, he added.

Also the food processing industry can, and does, benefit from EU fisheries budgets. Financial assistance is available for improved production methods and, of course, the improved quality of the products plus research and development. Under the Financial Instruments for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG) each member state gets an amount for a given period, currently 2000 to 2006. Exactly how much money is hard to identify, as FIFG funds are integrated into other regional development programmes so it is difficult to separate out.

It is up to each government to decide how much it wants to allocate to the fisheries sector, (from scrapping vessels to helping early retirement schemes to fish farming, and processing). Anyway, its purpose is to increase competitiveness in the fishing sector and develop viable businesses. How much money will be available beyond 2007 is down to the solution to the current budget row, something that is currently extremely difficult to predict.

Unsatisfactory

Borg gave notice of other reforms planned by the Commission, such as an ambition to change the fisheries year so that in 2007 it will begin in April rather than January.

The intention is to give more time for scientific advice available in December to be absorbed for four months before ministers make their annual decision on wild fish quotas, which then have to be followed immediately. This, he said is unsatisfactory to governments and the sector alike.

The need for this has been underlined by recent events, which have shown how tough decisions are becoming to maintain fishing at a commercial level in the EU. The Commission's unprecedented recent decision to impose a total ban on the North Sea's sand eel fishing because of the stock's collapse comes as a wake-up call to industry and consumers alike. They have been scooped from the seabed in their millions to be converted into fishmeal, despite the fact that the eels are vital for haddock, cod and mackerel. The ban is likely to come into effect this month or next. Almost at the same time a closure of anchovy fishing in the Bay of Biscay has been signalled following the advice to this effect of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES).

Based on its own findings, the Council has recommended an immediate closure of such fishing. In response the European Commission has started the procedure to put emergency measures in place to create a moratorium. A decision on this is imminent, say EU officials.

Further expansion

With such abrupt reminders of the fragility of current fish management policies as the Commission tries to curb over-fishing, it is no surprise that Borg is concerned to ensure the continuing growth of "aquaculture" continues on at least its present annual 4%. He noted that fish farming is the only part of the EU fish sector in which employment has increased in recent years. Furthermore, where he can, the Commissioner said he was keen to promoter semi-intensive production systems in coastal lagoons or even in inland ponds. The Commissioner is also keen to examine the further expansion of offshore fish farming technology, a new emphasis, which will be reflected in what he calls the Commission's new "holistic approach to maritime issues", and which will be set out in detail in a forthcoming Green Paper, to be published in 2006.

The further expansion of offshore fish farming will be one of the main focuses of the policy document. This will bring to fulfilment a promise that the Commissioner gave to members of the European Parliament last November when he told them that growth in fish farming would be one of the priorities of his five-year term of office.

But even in this thriving newer sector, there are problems. The Maltese Commissioner is concerned about the increasing competition, and sometimes even conflict, for space along the shore.

Also, the pot of money available for this sub-sector is of course limited. Borg nevertheless warned that the European Fisheries Fund would no longer give priority to the modernisation of existing fish farm enterprises. Rather there would be more money going to initiatives favouring the production of new species, with an eye to quality and the high end of the market, and of course, environmentally friendly cultivation methods.

"We need an integration of efforts at the EU level not only to create synergies, but also reach a necessary critical mass for the success of these activities," says Borg.