EU urged to do more to help preserve dwindling fish stocks

Martin Banks
France insists on fishing rights in UK waters post-Brexit

Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) NGOs have urged the European Union and EU ministers to “return EU fish populations to their former abundance and finally end overfishing.”

The message coincided with World Fisheries Day (21 November) where environmental NGOs created a visual reminder of “how large and plentiful fish once were” outside a Council meeting of EU agriculture and fisheries ministers. 

Campaigners say they want EU fish populations returned to their “former abundance”  and an end to overfishing, by “setting fishing opportunities in line with scientific recommendations.”

This week’s action, “Missing Fish”, was said to provide sensory reminders of the historical size and abundance of fish.

It also seeks to highlight some of the most depleted populations in the Northeast Atlantic such as West of Scotland cod, Celtic Sea herring and Irish Sea whiting, as well as Mediterranean hake and eel. 

The demo in Brussels took place in the context of current negotiations to set catch limits for Northeast Atlantic fish stocks and restrict fishing efforts in the Mediterranean in 2023. 

The agreed fishing opportunities will be adopted at next month’s agricultural and fisheries Council meeting in Brussels (12-13 December). 

Vera Coelho, Senior Director of Advocacy at Oceana in Europe, said “Despite repeated EU and international commitments to end overfishing, it persists and dozens of European fish populations remain in a critical state. Ministers must treat fish as not just numbers but as a fundamental part of ocean life, on which we all depend. 

“Rebuilding abundant fish populations will benefit fishers, marine life and ocean health – there is no good reason to keep delaying action.” 

Overfishing is said to be the most serious threat to oceans and the leading driver of marine biodiversity loss and critically undermines the resilience of fish and other wildlife to climate change. 

The group says the EU has failed to meet the legal deadline to end overfishing by 2020, set in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and in UN Sustainable Development Goal commitments. 

It also states, “Although the EU annually reaffirms its commitment to sustainable fishing, it continues to ignore the scientific advice by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) when setting fishing quotas for several fish populations. 

Our Fish Programme Director Rebecca Hubbard, said, “Environmental NGOs are calling on EU decision-makers to take a more precautionary and long-term approach to save our fish and marine ecosystems. Only sustainable and low-impact fisheries that put the health of fish stocks at their core will ensure fish for human consumption in the long run.

“EU governments and the EU Commission must take urgent action to protect the ocean’s carbon system so that fish can carry out their vital role as carbon engineers – capturing, sequestering and storing carbon”.

 “With COP27 behind us and Montreal’s Biodiversity COP15 fast approaching, the EU must transform biodiversity and climate pledges into action by supporting ecosystem-based fisheries management as good carbon management, which will also bring great benefits in terms of ocean resilience and adaptation.” 

Year after year, the group says over 20 Northeast Atlantic fish stocks are severely depleted and many others are overfished. 

Examples of these include Western Baltic herring; Western Atlantic horse mackerel; and Celtic Sea whiting. But it is cod, an iconic and much-loved species, which is in a particularly dire state, with all stocks, from the North Sea to the west of Scotland, Irish Sea or Celtic Sea, at, or near, historically low levels.

 According to a European Commission report on the performance of the CFP from April 2022, 28% of assessed Northeast Atlantic fish stocks and 86% of those in the Mediterranean and Black seas remain fished above sustainable levels. 

Another recent report by ClientEarth says that the EU has “made particularly poor progress” in following scientific advice for data-limited stocks, and has been much less likely to follow its own recommendations to reduce catches compared to recommendations that support catch increases. 

Niki Sporrong, Senior Policy Officer & European Eel Project Manager at The Fisheries Secretariat. “European eel is one of these data-limited stocks for which scientific advice is not followed. We have a critically-endangered species, with zero catch advice, and still fishing is allowed to continue in most of its geographical range. It is in breach of both fisheries and conservation objectives, and it has to stop before it is too late.”

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Martin Banks is an experienced British-born journalist who has been covering the EU beat (and much else besides) in Brussels since 2001. Previously, he had worked for many years in regional journalism in the UK and freelanced for national titles. He has a keen interest in foreign affairs and has closely followed the workings of the European Parliament and MEPs in particular for some years.