European Parliament Approves Ambitious Fisheries Reform

Net gain? Supporters say new European fishing policy could help overfished stocks recover. Above, a crab boat works the North Sea.


The European Union is inching closer to a radical overhaul of its fisheries policy, aiming to curb overfishing. In Strasbourg, France, yesterday, the European Parliament approved a plan to reform the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) by a 502-to-137 vote.

The plan aims to improve the much-criticized CFP, last reviewed in 2002, by capping catches at sustainable levels, banning discards of unwanted species, and making better use of scientific data for long-term planning. According to the European Commission, 68% of the European Union's stocks are overfished.

The vote—which is still just a step toward final adoption of the new policies—represents a "momentous shift" away from overfishing, the environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement. The World Wide Fund for Nature (called the World Wildlife Fund in the United States) praised the vote as a "truly exceptional" event. If fully adopted, the rules will allow fish stocks to "recover by 2020, enabling us to take 15 million tons more fish and create 37,000 new jobs," predicted Ulrike Rodust, a German member of the Parliament who was responsible for revising and offering a legislative proposal originally developed by the European Commission in July 2011.

Under the revamped rules, starting in 2015 regulators would set catch limits using a data-driven standard known as maximum sustainable yield (MSY). This means that fishermen would not be able to catch more than a fish stock can reproduce in a given year. Although MSY is commonly used in fisheries regulation in the United States, Europe has been slower to adopt it.

Europêche, a lobby group for European fishing companies, says that the 2015 target is too rigid, and it should be postponed to 2020.

But Michel Kaiser, a marine conservation ecologist at Bangor University in the United Kingdom, believes that MSY is the right target to adopt, although it can be technically difficult to use. "It's very difficult to ever have all your stocks exploited at MSY," Kaiser tells ScienceInsider. That's because fishing boats often catch more than one species in their nets. So, if cod stocks are low but haddock stocks are high in the same waters, for example, fishers may have to stop catching both species to protect the cod.

Scientists will have an important part to play in helping the industry collect reliable data, Kaiser says. While the industry is willing to collect data, for instance, "the scientific community needs to provide protocols so that the information is valid." His own university has carried out a joint scientific project with the Welsh fishing industry, funded by the European Fisheries Fund.

The new plan also calls for banning fish discards starting in 2014, another move that the industry dismissed as "rushed." At present, about one-quarter of fish caught in the European Union is thrown back at sea because fishers cannot sell them; most of these unwanted fish die. Green groups generally support the ban, but Kaiser says a ban could be difficult to police and will require changes along the whole fishing supply chain. "Otherwise, the [excess] fish will end up in a landfill, and nobody would think that's a good outcome."

In another major change, the plan calls for the introduction of multiyear fish stock management plans in a bid to avoid yearly haggling between national governments over fishing quotas. These plans would be based on "more reliable and accurate scientific data," the Parliament states.

That reform opens the way to a stronger role for scientific advisory bodies such as the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, observers say. And if member states don't collect and publicize the data needed to create these plans, the European Union could punish them by withdrawing fisheries funding, says Saskia Richartz, E.U. fisheries policy director at Greenpeace in Brussels.

The reform plan still has to be discussed with governments from the European Union's 27 member states. If they reach an agreement by the end of June, the plan could come into force next year.

Countries that have so far opposed the reform include Spain and France-two of the top four fishing nations in the European Union-according to Greenpeace. But the group adds that support for reform is growing, and that these governments "will find it increasingly hard to act as proxies for a handful of powerful companies, with no concern for the long-term wellbeing of the oceans or the majority of fishermen."