Fishing forever

Fishing forever


describes the European Community's work
to ensure sustainable fisheries

fishermen in boat

Sustainable fisheries and food security are closely interlinked. If it is true that fisheries are for most countries of less importance than agriculture, it is also undeniable that this sector plays an important socio-economic, environmental and nutritional role throughout the world and is of particular relevance in some developing countries. Therefore, it is our task and obligation to ensure that both present and future generations can rely on fisheries for their food security.

In order to achieve this objective, the Community conducts a two-fold action: at the internal level we have developed the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and progressively improved the performance of its conservation measures; at the external level, we have continually participated in the work conducted internationally in the field of fisheries.

Interdependence and cooperation

The interdependent character of fishing activities - fish do not know national boundaries and their stocks constitute a limited resource - implies an approach based on international cooperation. This was always a top priority for the Community and we have never limited our activity to the internal aspects of management. On the contrary, Community representatives participate actively in the work of several international conventions and organizations established, at the appropriate regional levels, for the purposes of conserving the fisheries resources concerned.

The pursuit of an active policy of international cooperation has led to the Community having a major role during the negotiations that led to the adoption of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas, as well as in those that led to the adoption of the United Nations Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, the latter signed on 27 June. The adoption of these instruments represents an important step in the process of implementing the objectives proclaimed in Agenda 21 and contributes decisively to creating a sound, coherent and transparent legal framework.

The Community has also played an important role in the successful conclusion of several international meetings that contributed to the sustainable use and conservation of marine living resources. Among these meetings, it is important to stress, in particular in the framework of the World Food Summit, the International Conference on the Sustainable use of Fisheries to Food Security. The Kyoto Declaration and Plan of Action that resulted from this meeting are an important benchmark as they set out the main objectives and action to be undertaken in order to address the problems facing this sector and ensure the sustainable contribution of fisheries to food security.

What does the Community do at the internal level to promote sustainable fisheries? The overriding premise of the CFP has always been to establish and implement the rational and responsible exploitation of living marine resources on a sustainable basis. It is the Community's view that only by acting upon this principle can the long-term future of fisheries under appropriate economic and social conditions be maintained. It goes without saying that the road towards sustainability is also the only way to secure the interest of both producers and consumers.

The CFP embodies the principle of equal access to all Community waters by all Community vessels - with the exception of the 12-mile coastal zones, some specific areas and transitional regimes defined in the 1985 and 1994 Accession Treaties. This does not mean, however, that member states are allowed to fish freely in each other's waters. On the basis of long-established fishing rights of the different countries, a detailed system of 'access to resources' was devised.

The current Community regime of conservation and management of marine resources, adopted in 1992, contains the possibility of managing exploitation levels by setting restrictions on fishing effort, that is, limiting the amount of time fishing vessels can spend at sea. It also foresees the management of fish stocks on a multiannual or a multispecies basis. Another innovation with regard to the former basic regulation of 1983 was the introduction of the aim of achieving a balance between fleet capacity and available resources, which rather significantly shifts the emphasis of the Community's policy regarding the reduction of overcapacity. Last but not least, a completely new element was introduced which obliged the Community to take into account the environmental consequences of exploitation activities for the marine ecosystem.

fish near net

Managing exploitation

The system of access to marine resources indicated above has made it possible to create various instruments setting conditions for exercising fishing activities.

One main instrument is the limitation of catches by setting Total Allowable Catches (TACs). TACs are set up by the Council, on the basis of proposals by the Commission elaborated on the most recent scientific advice regarding the exploitation of commercially important fish stocks. Once established, TACs are allocated to member states in the form of national quotas. This allocation takes place on the basis of the principle of 'relative stability', which means that there exists a fixed allocation key that has been operational since at least 1985. Up until now, the system of TACs and quotas has been operated on a yearly basis, with the Council of Fisheries Ministers usually reaching agreement after fairly heated debate. To make this system less rigid, a new regulation has been adopted in 1996, containing additional conditions for year-to-year management of TACs and quotas. The aim of this modification is to improve rational exploitation of limited resources by means of increased flexibility of the underlying system.

An exciting challenge for putting the principle of sustainable fisheries into practice presented itself this year. On the basis of new scientific information, it became evident that the critical situation in which the North Sea herring stock currently finds itself called for drastic action at short notice. In the true spirit of the cause of sustainability, both the Commission and the Council came quickly to a decision: a very drastic cut in the 1996-TAC for North Sea herring was adopted in July 1996, with a series of stringent accompanying measures. We may safely speak here of a success for the case of rational exploitation.

Another step was put forward in the management of exploitation rates with the introduction, in 1995, of a new instrument, complementary to the TAC and quotas system: the direct limitation of the fishing effort, a system currently in force in western Community waters. The major innovation is that this regime establishes a link between the captures (fish) and the fishing capacity (boats) of the European fleet. Given the complexity of fishing activities, in order to manage fishing effort it is necessary to define strategies and objectives by 'fishery', which is defined by species fished and fishing gear used. The Commission looks upon regulation of fishing effort as a valuable tool in implementing more effectively the system of TACs and quotas.

Technical conservation measures are also an important component of the CFP aimed at ensuring sustainability. The main purpose of the technical measures regulation is to protect juvenile fish by setting minimum mesh sizes for nets, minimum landing sizes for marine organisms and restrictions of the use and characteristics of gear types. A revision of the current regulation, yet to be discussed by the Council, has been prepared by the Commission to improve transparency and increase conservation effect.

Integrating policies

industryThe willingness of the Commission to integrate both environmental and fisheries considerations was shown in 1991 with the adoption of restrictions on the use of drift nets, following the United Nations General Assembly resolution on large-scale pelagic drift-net fishing. Among other things, the restriction aims at reducing by-catches of non-commercial marine organisms, such as small cetaceans, sea turtles and sharks. The Commission wants now to go further with the ban of all drift-net fishing by Community vessels as of January 1998. Its opinion is that the environmental damage caused by these nets is significant, that control of this type of gear is extremely difficult and that viable alternatives to drift-net fishing exist.

At the moment, the Commission is preparing a communication on the issue of fisheries management and nature conservation in the marine environment, stressing the need further to integrate fisheries and environmental policies and identifying a number of ways in which this integration might progress.

Structural and market policies

In order to arrive at truly sustainable fisheries, it is imperative for the Community to attain a balance between the fishery resources available and the fishing effort deployed. The main problem in achieving this objective is the continuing existence of overcapacity of the Community fishing fleet.

The Commission is now preparing the fourth so-called Multi-Annual Guidance Programme which will run from January 1997 until January 2003. Early in 1996, a group of scientific experts was convened to examine the state of stocks in relation to the fleets exploiting them. On the basis of the report they produced and of a broad-based consultation of professional organizations to identify the specific socio-economic aspects involved in implementing the Programme's objectives, the Commission has formulated proposals for appropriate capacity targets to be achieved by the end of 2002.

As far as the common organization of markets in fishery products is concerned, several mechanisms have been established to dissuade trading practices that could go against the objectives of the conservation policy pursued by the Community.

Measures were taken to discourage the landings of undersized fish. Besides, to avoid significant quantities of fish being withdrawn from the market and destroyed, Community financial aid is not given above certain levels of fish landed, nor is it provided for the species under TACs and quotas when the fishery is closed.

Emma Bonino is Commissioner for Fisheries with the European Commission.

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