EU auditors: Overfishing in EU waters threat to marine environment

EU auditors: Overfishing in EU waters threat to marine environment
The Mediterranean is considered the world’s most overfished sea, Photo credit: Unsplash/Ahmed Gamal

EU action has not led to the recovery of significant marine ecosystems and habitats, according to a special audit report published last week by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

The audit covered the period from 2008 up until March 2020. It focused on the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Coast, Macaronesia and the Western Mediterranean Sea. The auditors visited the four member states with coastlines on these sea areas (Spain, France, Italy and Portugal) and consulted an expert panel to analyse links between environmental and fishing policies.

“Due to their economic, social and environmental importance, seas are a real treasure. However, EU action has so far been unable to restore European seas to good environmental status, nor fishing to sustainable levels”, said João Figueiredo, the Portuguese Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report. “Our audit clearly raises the red flag over the EU’s sea protection.”

The audit report is timely because 2020 was a key year for the EU in terms of meeting objectives for the marine environment, such as UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 concerning life below water. ECA expects that the report will feed into the Commission’s planned reviews of the fishing and marine protection policies in the coming years.

Audit findings

The marine environment is protected through environmental and fisheries policies that are not coordinated, according to the auditors. The main environmental policies are set out in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) from 2008 and other directives.

The EU’s common fisheries policy (CFM) aims to ensure that fishing activities are environmentally sustainable and to minimise their negative impacts on the marine ecosystem, as well as providing funding. The CFP has as its objectives not only environmental goals but also socioeconomic ones.

While the EU has exclusive competence over the conservation of marine biological resources through the CFP, the responsibility for environmental policies is a shared with the member states.

The more than 3,000 marine protected areas (MPA) are probably the most emblematic marine conservation measures. However, a recent assessment by the European environment agency (EEA) found that less than 1 % of the areas could be considered marine reserves with full protection, e.g. through fishing bans.

Fishing, besides other factors such as industrial charges and oil or gas exploration, has a considerable impact on the marine environment. Although the CFP had begun to improve fish stocks in the Atlantic, there were no meaningful signs of progress in the Mediterranean. Fishing there is at more than twice sustainable levels.

ECA mentions that the EEA recently reported that only 6 % of assessed stocks in the Mediterranean met the “maximum sustainable yield” criteria.

The situation in the Mediterranean Sea is inferior to that in the Atlantic Seas because of different rules and the shared fishing with non-EU countries. In 2017, EU catches accounted for 52 % of all catches by weight. Fisheries in the Mediterranean are managed mostly based on fishing effort (= days a fishing boat may fish) rather than quotas (= amount of fish that can be caught), like in the Atlantic.

Furthermore, about €6 billion was allocated to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) for the 2014-2020 period. However, the auditors estimate that the four member states they visited had used only 14 % for measures directly or indirectly related to conservation measures. Hardly anything was used to limit the impact of fishing on the marine environment.

According to WWF, the Mediterranean is considered the world’s most overfished sea. Commenting on the audit report, it warns that, “If fishing practices don’t improve, stocks could collapse – and that will have disastrous consequences for ecosystems, for communities and for the economy.” WWF calls for cooperation between all the European, North African and Middle Eastern countries that share the sea.

Commission’s response

In its reply to the report, the Commission acknowledged that currently the network of marine protected areas in EU waters is not ecologically representative. In most other audit issues, ECA and the Commission do not see eye to eye. While accepting all audit recommendations, the Commission only committed itself to consider them in a planned action plan in 2021 and a report on the functioning of the CFP in 2022.

As regards the situation in the Mediterranean, the Commission replied that more time is needed for recent measures in 2019 and 2020 to be translated into an improved state of the fish stocks. On the funding problem, it noted that it is up to the member states to target and make use of the available EU funds.

However, the Commission noted that co-legislators have introduced a number of amendments, which would introduce EMFF-funding for increases in fishing capacity, but that the Commission strongly opposes to such amendments. ECA writes that both the Commission and the Council in the past have proposed catch limits which exceeded scientific advice.

A Commission spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the Commission is strongly committed to the protection of the marine environment and managing marine resources sustainably and welcomes the ECA audit. While it considers that over the past years a lot has been achieved in these areas, it recognises that there is room for improvement.

The Commission promises that measures will be introduced to limit the use of fishing gear most harmful to biodiversity, including on the seabed. “The EMFF should also support the transition to more selective and less damaging fishing techniques.” An audit of the member states’ fishing effort management systems in the Mediterranean is scheduled for 2021.

In a recent report, WWF and Sky Ocean Rescue wrote that the revision of the EU fisheries control system should mandate the use of Remote Electronic Monitoring with cameras (REM) on fishing vessels to ensure sustainable fisheries and prevent bycatch in European seas. According to WWF. fishing is the biggest threat to marine wildlife due to the use of non-selective fishing gear.

ECA’s role

ECA recommends the EU to “identify” regulatory and administrative changes in the regulations, “improve” protection measures in the Mediterranean and “increase” the potential of EU funding. While WWF calls for that at least 25% of the EMFF should be spent on marine conservation objectives, ECA has deliberately abstained from telling the Commission what exactly it should do.

“We drafted recommendations that reflect the different competences of the Commission and the member states and the problems we found without prejudging the solutions to be found by them,” ECA member Figueredo told The Brussels Times.

“Concerning funding of conservation measures from the EMFF, as independent auditors and not policy makers, ECA does not have a view on how funds should be allocated to different policies,” he admitted. “As the EU’s independent auditors, we don’t tell policy makers how to do their jobs. Later we will follow up on the actions taken by the Commission to address our recommendations.”

It does not mean that ECA has no opinions of its own. Figueredo explained that it is the Commission’s role to propose changes to EU law but emphasised that it is probably more important that the existing EU regulations and directives are correctly applied. The findings in the audit report are sufficiently detailed to give the Commission food for thought on what should be done.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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