EC commissioner for environment, Margot Wallström, spoke about her expectations for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) on Tuesday, something she argued was a major issue for sustainable development.

“There can be no fisheries without fish,” she opened, adding, “The problem is that fisheries today does not respect this reality.

“My most immediate concern is the impact of current fishing practices on the marine eco-system… however, I also see fisheries as a lesson in sustainable development in a broader sense. The current CFP is not sustainable, either from a natural resources or from an economic point of view.”

Environmental impact of fisheries

“Certain fisheries currently threaten bio-diversity,” she said. Earlier this year, dozens of dead dolphins were washed up on the beaches of England and France, after being caught in the nets of the seasonal bass fisheries in the area. All cetacean species, to which dolphins belong, are supposed to be strictly protected under the Habitats Directive.

Another cetacean species, the harbour porpoise, is also threatened by fisheries in EU waters, with several hundred and even thousand caught each year during the 1990s in the Northeast Atlantic. In the Baltic Sea, even the incidental catch of very few harbour porpoises could now threaten the survival of this population.

Action has been taken in some fisheries, for example by using pingers (acoustic deterrents) but their effectiveness and side-effects have been criticised. Since the beginning of this year, the use of drift nets has been banned by the EC for certain fisheries although not in the Baltic where the problem appears to be the most acute.

“In any case, it is questionable whether these measures will be sufficient to end unsustainable levels of by-catches of harbour porpoises,” she said: “The EC will therefore work on a broad-ranging plan to protect cetaceans from by-catch.”

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 34% of all fish species are vulnerable or in immediate danger of extinction, she noted; “It is simply not acceptable that fishing operates in a manner that threatens a species protected under EC law or for that matter of course any other species.”

Over-fishing is now the major threat to marine bio-diversity. Fishing gear can also cause physical damage to the environment.

Wallström noted that aquaculture is “potentially an important complement to fisheries”. However, she said, fish farms have their own problems: they take up space in coastal zones and cause marine pollution. It has been estimated for example that salmon fish farming in the Nordic countries releases nitrogen in quantities found in the sewage of 3.9 million people. This can cause water eutrophication. By using fishmeal, aquaculture may also put pressure on wild fish stocks.

“The Habitats Directive … must as such be fully implemented by the Member States. However, environmental requirements have to be integrated into day-to-day fisheries management as well.” she said: “The EC’s Fisheries Action Plan under the Bio-diversity Convention is an important stepping stone in this regard.

“Fishermen should become the stewards of the resources that they are living off.”

Managing a common resource

“Fisheries are an excellent example of the link between natural resources and economic prosperity, and must be managed with its long-term conservation in mind,” she added: “The EU is committed to the objective of sustainable development, and it should now put this goal into practice in the reform of the CFP.”

The cod fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic should serve as a warning, she explained. The shoals of cod on the Atlantic’s Grand Banks were once the biggest cod-fishing grounds in the world, but after being exploited during the 1950s and 1960s, warnings came that stocks were being over-fished. These were ignored however and stocks collapsed in the early 1990s, the effect being that the entire cod-based fishing industry in Eastern Canada has been wiped out.

“You cannot without impunity take more out of the sea than the sea has to provide,” she said: “Nowhere is it more obvious than in fisheries that the sound management of natural resources is the basis for economic prosperity.”

The catch quotas set by the Fisheries Council have all too often not followed scientific advice on how much could safely be taken out of the seas. Poor enforcement of the agreed quotas has also contributed to over-fishing. It is a sad truth that EC subsidies have at the same time supported the construction of ever bigger and more efficient vessels and thus added to the problem hardly the most rational use of tax payers’ money in a situation of over-fishing, she added, reiterating the analysis of the Green Paper on the future of the CFP published by the EC last year.

The EC now estimates that catches in some of the most important EU’s fisheries should be reduced by 30 to 60% to bring it into line with available stocks.

“I am not blaming the fishermen on their vessels who do a hard job and often risk their lives,” she insisted: “I see them as the victims of the current situation.

“I am pointing to the failure of the current fisheries policy to manage its resource properly and thus provide fishermen with a future. I am criticising subsidies that are adding to the problem rather than addressing it.

Thorough reform of the CFP, she insisted, “can only make things better by ensuring the long-term sustainability of fishing and managing the restructuring process in an orderly way.

“What we need is a reform of the CFP that manages the crisis head-on, re-directs subsidies towards scrapping vessels and creates new economic prospects for the fishermen and the regions affected.”