By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Fishermen routinely blame the EU for falling stocks
The EU has far too many fishing boats, and major cuts are needed to make fishing sustainable, according to the European Commission.
The commission's green paper on Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform also says fishermen should be given more responsibility for managing stocks.
A copy obtained by BBC News prior to publication on Wednesday says 30% of EU fish stocks are beyond safe limits.
It says member states "micro-manage" decisions for political reasons.
Despite major reforms in 2002, it concludes, the reality for EU fish and fishermen consists of "overfishing, fleet overcapacity, heavy subsidies, low economic resilience and decline in the volume of fish caught".
Eighty-eight percent of EU stocks are fished beyond their maximum sustainable yield - the highest catch that can be maintained over an indefinite period - and for some, such as North Sea cod, the vast majority of fish are caught before they have reproduced.
Fishermen would end up richer, the commission concludes, by reducing catches until depleted stocked recover - but the system is set up to ensure short-term profits are the driving factor.
Many aspects of the commission's analysis agree with the positions that environmental groups have taken down the years.
We believe this proposal recognises the improved record of fishermen in terms of environmental responsibility in recent years
"Irrespective of any reform, a number of fishing fleets are two-three times the size needed to catch the available fish," said Uta Bellion, director of the Pew Environment Group's EU marine programme.
"Only by balancing fleet capacity with fishing opportunity can we secure a CFP that provides long-term socio-economic benefits."
Across the EU, fleet capacity has come down, the commission says, but only about 2-3% per year. Meanwhile, technological improvements are making boats 2-3% more efficient every year - so the capacity reductions are having little effect.
The commission's scientifically derived proposals on sustainable catch levels are routinely revised upwards when EU environment ministers meet, traditionally in late December, to set quotas for the year following.
Although fishermens' groups often blame the commission for quotas they consider too low, the green paper argues that many member states have been guilty of seeking to maintain high quotas on depleted stocks for political reasons.
Falling stocks mean lower catches, and what the document describes as "a vicious circle of overfishing, overcapacity and low economic resilience (resulting in) high political pressure to increase short-term fishing opportunities at the expense of future sustainability of the industry".
The Commission is keen on having fishermen "own" rights to catch
Without naming names, the paper's wording makes it clear that the commission thinks some countries have a much better track record on this point than others.
The green paper recognises that achieving sustainable catch levels means working with fishermen, encouraging them to develop their own methods of sustainable management and creating incentives that promote a long-term perspective.
One option raised is expanding the use of transferable quotas, where fishermen "own" the right to fish for many years, so gaining from managing the stock sustainably.
SeaFish, the UK's government-supported industry body, broadly welcomed the green paper.
"We are glad the commission recognises the fundamental issues that need to be tackled, in particular the urgent need for a solution to discards and the need for a level playing field across all member states," said the organisation's chief executive John Rutherford.
"We welcome... the opportunity it offers fishermen to become involved in the responsible management of fish stocks. We believe this proposal recognises the improved record of fishermen in terms of environmental responsibility in recent years."
Among the commission's other ideas are:
- removing all remaining subsidies, such as cheap fuel
- increasing the effectiveness of inspections and penalties for rule-breaking
- differentiating between the rights of small-scale community-based coastal fishing boats and large industrial concerns
The commission is asking for comments and ideas on its green paper, and aims to bring a reformed CFP into existence by 2013.
Read some of your comments about this story:
As a boy, the engineer would take me to the engine room when changing cooling water filters, so I could peel out all those critters that were trapped in the filter mesh. Thirty years later, doing the same duty myself, I never found anything alive, but frequently the filters were blocked with remains of fishing nets. On top of that, most cargo ships now suffer from nets caught in the propeller, often destroying the shaft seal, resulting in costly repairs. The Northern and Baltic sea were destroyed by two factors: overfishing, especially by dredge net and long line fishing, and suntan oil combined with other land borne pollution.
Stefan Zalewski, Crusheen, Co. Clare, Ireland
I'm happy to finally see a European response to this problem. I'm most impacted by the heavy blue fin tuna slaughter that occurs across the pond. I captain a private sport fishing boat on the US East Coast and blue fins are getting harder to find ever year. I hope this works. EU boats are not the only culprit. US boats need to look at the big picture not just what they'll earn this week. And the world as a whole needs to all respect the sea and all creatures that live within.
Scott Gaeckle, Southampton, NY, USA
Why isn't aquaculture subsidised and encouraged to a greater degree? It would provide alternative employment to the fishing community and prevent their infrastructure being wasted.
George Neville-Jones, London, UK
Fishermen are responsible for the low levels of fish stocks - they have pushed successive Governments to allow them more fish to catch and Governments have obliged. Now the EU want to hand over the stocks to them - good grief if it wasn't true it would make you weep with frustration. The answer is quite simply to set the catch at the scientifically proven level - then enforce it. The problem is that Governments and the EU don't want to do either.
Julian Fox, Solihull, UK
The overfishing issue is a microcosm of the fundamental inability the human species has to manage its home sensibly. As a species we are far too myopic to opt for long-term sustainability and, instead, "the system is set up to ensure short-term profits are the driving factor". The only way we can possibly change this behaviour is either by dying off in huge numbers or evolving to a stage where we are intelligent enough to consider the consequences of our actions upon not just our offspring, but ourselves.
Bill, Sydney, Australia
It's about time a truly equitable solution were found instead of pandering to the most muscle or he who shouts loudest. Coastal waters should remain the property of the country who's coast they adjoin and the deep sea should be strictly controlled, but with common sense attached.
Peter, Preston, UK
Getting large agencies ( i.e. government) out of it and getting small agencies in ( i.e. fishermen) in is part of the solution. Getting greed (i.e. money) out is the biggest problem...
Mark Patry MD, Quebec City, Canada