European Union Plans Policy Overhaul to Make Fisheries Sustainable

Sea change. A trawler in Nordstrand, Germany

Dirk Ingo Franke, Wikimedia Commons

European fishers will soon be forbidden from tossing unwanted fish back into the ocean, if a proposal for overhauling European Union fishing policy is adopted. The European Commission today unveiled its plans for making the E.U.'s fishing policy more sustainable, including a ban on discarding bycatch--fish that are too small or are not the ship's target species, and which are thrown back into the water dead or dying. The plan aims to bring fishing to sustainable levels by 2015, in accordance with international agreements.

The European Union has estimated that 80% of its stocks are overfished. The plan would set fishing quotas based on maximum sustainable yield, which is the number of fish that can be taken each year while still leaving the population at its maximum productivity. The proposal would also regulate fish stocks under multispecies plans that take into account a species' role in the ecosystem. To help determine the maximum sustainable yield, member states would be required to collect more precise data on their fish stocks, and a new Europe-wide fisheries information service would make all the data easily accessible. Stock sizes would increase by about 70% under the plan, the Commission says, leading to overall larger catches and a more profitable industry.

The European Union estimates that up to 60% of fish caught by E.U. vessels are tossed back overboard. Requiring fishers to "land" all fish caught will mean that less-profitable bycatch takes up room and weight on fishing vessels. That, in turn, should encourage fishers to use more targeted fishing methods, according to the commission.

"The proposal is not 100% of what I'd want, but it's close," says fisheries biologist Rainer Froese of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany. The plan still needs the approval of the European Parliament and member states, however. Many of the agriculture ministers who have to agree on the proposal will try to water it down, Froese worries. "The big fear is that after all this horse trading, not much will be left," he says.