The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of twenty-eight countries. The aim of the EU is to allow all member states to operate as a trade bloc with free movement of goods, services and money/trade between member states. There has also been the development of common policies on agriculture, trade, fisheries and there are a number of other laws and regulations which apply to all nations.
The fisheries policy for the EU is called the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and sets out the rules and laws that control and govern commercial fishing across the entire European Union. As fish move across the territorial waters of different nations the EU believes they are a shared resource and the common fisheries policy therefore sets standardised rules which apply to all EU member nations. The official web portal of the European Union states the main aims of the CFP here, but they can be summarised as:
- Setting out the rules so that commercial fishing in Europe is sustainable.
- Enforce fishing regulations.
- Prevent the size of Europe’s fishing fleet from expanding.
- Provide funding and technical support for fishermen to make their industry more sustainable.
- Negotiate with non-EU countries over fishing related issues.
- Ensure the fishing industry gets a fair price for their produce and consumers can trust the seafood they eat (through regulating quality and labelling of fish throughout the EU).
- Support fish farming and aquaculture.
- Commission scientific research and data collection to inform future policy.
While the Common Fisheries Policy is well-intentioned and sets out rules and regulations which (in theory at least) support sustainable fisheries the CFP has became immensely controversial. It is seen by many as the source of a range of the problems with Europe’s fish stocks. While there have been attempts to reform the CFP in recent years the criticisms continue and are examined below.
How Does the Common Fisheries Policy Work?
A Single EEZ: Across the world countries have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends 200 nautical miles from the country’s coastline. Within this zone each country can exploit, control and manage the sea in any way they wish. Within Europe it was seen as beneficial to have a more harmonious system – if fishermen from different EU nations were to fish the same waters it was seen as beneficial to bring them all together under the same legislation and rules. The Common Fisheries Policy therefore stated that member nations would only control an area of sea extending twelve miles out from their coastline. The rest of their EEZ would be combined with other member nations to create the largest EEZ in the world (as the picture below shows).
This meant that EU fishermen could effectively fish anywhere in the EU’s EEZ, and the same rules and regulations would apply to all. Fishermen from any EU nation can fish freely within any other EU countries waters (although licensing and quotas still apply).
Total Allowable Catches (TACs): The Common Fisheries Policy sets the amount of fish which can be caught in each area. This decision is based on scientific advice on fish stocks and the historical number of fish which have been caught by fishermen from that area. Total Allowable Catch levels are set every December by the Agriculture and Fisheries configuration of the Council of the European Union.
Fishing Control and Fleet Size: The CFP attempts to limit the number of fishing vessels operating in EU waters. The EU’s own web portal states that: “Most fishing fleets in the EU are much too big compared to the available fish resources.” The EU therefore attempts to limit the size of the fleet and keeps a register of all fishing vessels and officially states that the size of the fleet cannot be larger than 2003-04 levels. The attempts to control fleet size have been heavily criticised (see below).
Stopping Illegal Fishing: The EU and the Common Fisheries Policy is meant to prevent illegal fishing. There are regulations over the types of fishing gear which can be used and the CFP allows certain areas to be closed to fishing to allow stocks to recover, although the interests and power of the commercial fishing lobby make this a very rare occurrence. Member states can put their own programmes to control fisheries into place such as licensing fishing vessels. While the EU often talks tough about stopping illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing it remains a huge problem as events such as the Scottish Black Fish Scandal show. An additional issue is that the huge subsides paid to commercial fishermen are still paid out to those proven of being guilty of illegal fishing (see Subsides section below).
Research: Part of the remit of the common fisheries is to carry out, commission and gather scientific research which is then used to inform debates and set TACs. However, the findings of this research are often ignored or contested by the various nations vying for the best deal they can get for their own fishermen within the CFP.
Subsidies: Subsidies are one of the most controversial aspects of the CFP. Subsidies are absolutely essential to the EU’s fishing fleet as the entire fleet actually runs at a loss and requires subsidies to make it profitable. Around one billion Euros are paid out every year.
Subsidies have been spent on constructing new fishing vessels (this was phased out and then partially reintroduced in 2019), modernising existing vessels and increasing their efficiency, increasing the efficiency of land-based processing facilities and subsidising fuel. In some cases fishermen receive more in subsidies than they earn from catching fish. Subsidies are handed out from central EU funds and national governments are also given EU money to give to fishermen. In a highly controversial move subsidies have been used to buy the right for EU industrial freezer trawlers to fish in the waters of developing African nations.
There are a huge amount of criticisms directed at the Common Fisheries Policy by conservationists, scientists, commercial fishermen, anglers, fishing communities, governments and the general public:
A Single EEZ: As stated above, the theory is that if fish move across European waters than it makes sense to treat the whole of Europe as one fishery with universal rules over movement, control and regulation applying to all member nations equally. However, the twelve miles extending from the shoreline of each nation are still sovereign waters of that country, with the common EEZ only extending from this point onwards. This means that Britain (like all other EU nations) only really controls this twelve mile zone and any control or conservation measures which are put forward can only be enforced inside this small zone – any measures extending beyond this zone and into Europe’s EEZ would require the agreement of all member nations.
From a British perspective this shared EEZ can be seen as a very bad deal. In 2015, EU vessels caught 683,000 tonnes of fish worth £484 million in UK waters, but UK vessels only caught 111,000 tonnes worth £114 million revenue in EU member states’ waters. In parts of the Celtic Sea (which prior to the CFP would have been controlled by the UK) French fishermen have the right to catch three times more Dover sole and four times more cod than British fishermen. Around 40% of the Danish fishing fleet’s total catch comes from the 200-mile zone which Britain would control if it was not in the CFP, and some Danish fishing communities rely entirely on catching fish within the bounds of what used to be Britain’s territorial waters. Clearly the Common Fisheries Policy and its shared EEZ has been immensely beneficial to some groups within Europe’s fishing industry, but those who now have to share what used to be their fishing grounds with others may not take such a positive view.
The shared EEZ can also lead to conflict. For example French scallop fishermen reacted with violence when British fishermen were dredging for scallops just outside of the French twelve mile zone during a period when the French were refraining from scallop fishing to allow stocks to recover. However, since the British fishermen were outside of French waters and (just) within the EU Exclusive Economic Zone they were doing nothing wrong, although this so-called Scallop War does underline the issues of countries only controlling a small proportion of the seas around their nation. The same can be seen in Britain’s attempts to ban pair-trawling for bass. This method of commercial fishing sees two vessels moving through the sea with a vast net between them. While being a highly effective method of fishing it is destructive and has been responsible for large numbers of dolphins and porpoises being killed by the nets. Britain banned pair trawling for bass in 2004 due but as this can only be enforced within twelve miles of Britain’s coastline other EU vessels can still pair trawl 12½ miles off the UK coast. Similarly the world’s second largest fishing vessel the FV Margiris (previously known as the Abel Tasman) has been banned from operating in Australian waters due to the impact that it would have on the nations fish stocks.
However, Britain is not able to ban the vessel from its own waters due to the CFP and European fishing rules needing to be decided by all members nations. This meant that when the FV Margiris began fishing for herring and mackerel in the English Channel in October 2019 – at one point coming within fourteen miles of the Sussex coast – there was nothing the UK government could do to stop the vessel. Read more on this here.
Discards: The issue of discards is another highly controversial aspect of the CFP and has gained a high level of media attention and public awareness in recent years. Discards refer to fish that have been caught by a commercial vessel which have to be thrown back into the sea. The reason for most discards is that a vessel will have ran out of quota for that species and is therefore unable to legally keep those fish and – under EU and CFP laws – have to throw them away. However, fish can also be discarded for other reasons. For example they may be too small to sell, a species which has no commercial value, or vessels may high-grade (throw away less valuable fish to make space for a higher-value species). Fish which are discarded back into the sea are almost always dead or dying, as they will have been crushed into a net and their swim bladder will have been ruptured by being dragged up from the seabed. It is estimated that in the North Sea alone around 800,000 – 900,000 tons of fish are discarded back into the sea every year.
The issue of discards was brought to public attention in 2010 when celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall began his ‘Fish Fight’ campaign to ban discards. This appeared to have some impact, as prior to this programme many members of the public were unaware that such as wasteful practice was standard practice in European waters. A debate therefore began throughout the EU over how to proceed with discards, with consultations and plans being drawn up to formulate some kind of discard ban.
However, any kind of reform of the CFP proceeds at a glacial pace and many nations with powerful fishing lobbies such as Spain and France resist any form of change which will disadvantage their commercial fishing industries in any way whatsoever. This could be seen in the ways in which certain nations opposed the discards ban and attempted to derail the legislation and insert different forms of exemptions and loopholes to dilute down the legislation. However, in 2013, after two years of intra-EU squabbling and wrangling a deal was reached to ban discards. A discard ban for pelagic fish would be introduced from 2015, and a ban for demersal (bottom dwelling) fish would be phased in between 2016 and 2019. However, Portugal, Spain and France did win some exemptions with fishermen conducting certain types of deep sea fishing being allowed to discard 9% of their catch, with this number going down to 7% after a few years.
However, in keeping with the European Union’s usual way of operating as soon as the discards ban was announced there were fears that the pressure from Europe’s commercial fishing lobby would lead to the ban being weakened considerably with loopholes granted to commercial fishermen. Indeed, this proved to be the case with MEPs voting to give fishermen a two year delay before sanctions would be brought in for those ignoring the discards ban. Following this it was also announced that fishermen would be able to legally discard fish which were classed as damaged by predators or disease. However, it will be entirely up to the fishermen to decide what constitutes a damaged or diseased fish, with many conservation groups concerned that many commercial fishermen will simply continue to discard healthy fish they did not want to land under the guise of fish being damaged or diseased.
Even with overwhelming public support for a discards ban the European Union and the Common Fisheries Policy is still incapable of passing a clear and robust piece of legislation which would prevent commercial fishermen from throwing healthy, edible fish back into the sea dead. Instead we have an discards ban which is announced with great publicity and then watered down with loopholes and exemptions which have absolutely nothing to do with rebuilding Europe’s fish stocks but instead keep the commercial fishing industry happy.
Total Allowable Catches (TACs): The Common Fisheries Policy sets Total Allowable Catches (TACs), which are the total amount of each species of fish which can be caught in a certain area. A huge number of organisations are involved in setting TACs with the EU working with other European agencies and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an international agency which provides scientific data on which to base catch levels. Ultimately the decision is made by the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of the European Union. However, this advice is often ignored if it goes against the interests of Europe’s commercial fishing industry. The TAC system is heavily criticised for creating an adversarial system where all member states will fight against each other for the highest possible level of catches for their fishermen when the TACs are decided every December – a system which is hardly conducive to well-managed and sustainable fisheries.
Politicians will often return from the December meeting stating that gaining a TAC for their country which is much higher than scientific advice recommends is a “great victory” for their country’s fishermen. The very brief European cod recovery is a perfect example of this. In 2017 reductions in catches and discards meant that cod stocks reached their highest levels in thirty-five years and North Sea cod became classed as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. This led to higher quotas and catches being set higher than scientists advised. Within two years all of the progress had been undone and North Sea cod were back to “critically low” levels with organisations such as ICES calling for catch reductions of two-thirds and the removal of MSC sustainable status for North Sea cod. For these reasons New Scientist magazine described the TAC policy as being a system which “meets the political objective of sharing fish among countries, but does not protect European fish stocks.”
Overcapacity and Subsidies: The size of the EU fishing fleet is far too large for the number of fish which are available to catch – a fact that is clearly recognised by the EU itself. This overcapacity is a major factor in the decline of European fish stocks it means that each country has to fight for the highest possible quota in order to allow their oversized fleet to catch enough fish to be profitable. It is also important to note that even if the EU fishing fleet does reduce in size modern technological advances mean that the fishing capacity of each individual vessel is constantly increasing. Indeed, an assessment by an Impact Committee of the EU itself stated that by 2022 the size of the EU fishing fleet would have to reduce by 40% to make up for the increasing power which vessels gain through technological advancement. However, any attempt to reduce the size of the fleet will inevitably be fought by the governments of individual countries and the various lobby groups of the European fishing industry. The issue of overcapacity is closely linked to subsidies which is EU (i.e. taxpayers) money which is handed out to fishermen to support their industry. Subsidies to build new fishing vessels were thankfully phased out in 2002, but fishermen still receive money to upgrade vessels, make engines more efficient and help support young fishermen at the start of their careers. The subsidies policy of the EU is riddled with problems, such as allegations of illegal fishing being no barrier to receiving further money from the EU. Subsidies from the EU are essential to many aspects of the European fishing industry as many fleets (such as the deep sea fishing fleet) actually run at a loss and require subsidies to operate. The charity Pew Environment sums up the situation succinctly stating “subsidies received by the sector compensate for … losses and create the illusion that fishing is still a viable business.”
Foreign Fishing: The EU has agreements to fish in the territorial waters of twenty non-EU nations. Some of these nations are within Europe (i.e. Iceland and Norway) and it is within the interest of both parties to allow regulated fishing within each others waters. However, the controversy arises due to the fact that fifteen of the twenty nations the EU has agreements with are developing countries.
These countries are paid by the European Union to allow European vessels to fish in their waters. This is controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is seen as evidence that European countries have depleted their own fish stocks and are now paying poor nations to exploit their fish stocks. Secondly, it is seen as damaging to these countries as almost all of the fish caught in their waters are sent to European markets. This means that the subsistence fishermen in the developing world are having their fish stocks reduced by European vessels for the benefit of European consumers. Thirdly, the foreign fishing issue is seen as another aspect of overcapacity – the huge factory vessels which have been built using EU subsidies cannot usually fish in European waters as their immense fish catching ability would use up all of the quota in a short amount of time. The EU therefore arranges agreements with poor African countries to allow the vessels to fish in their waters. The infamous Atlantic Dawn (the so-called ‘Ship from Hell’) is a perfect example of this. Once it had been built there was no way it would have the quota to be able to fish in European waters so it was instead arranged for it to fish in the waters of the impoverished dictatorial African nation of Mauritania – a country where a fifth of the population live on less than the UN definition of extreme poverty of $1.25 a day and there are significant problems with modern day slavery.
Britain has taken the lead and attempted to end, or at least limit the EU overfishing of African fish stocks, although the usual suspects of Spain and France have fought against attempts to limit access to African waters. Britain’s attempts appear to have come to nothing, as in 2016 the European Union signed a new €236 million (£185.2 million) four-year deal to allow factory vessels to fish in the territorial waters of Mauritania.
Scientific Advice Ignored and/or Misinterpreted: Due to the fact that the EU has to protect the interests of Europe’s commercial industry scientific advice on protecting fish stocks is often only given cursory attention, while at other times it is completely ignored. The Total Allowable Catches which are agreed every year are the clearest example of this. Most years the catch levels are set higher than scientific advice recommends, with the 2019 agreement to set catches for 2020 once again seeing quotas set higher than scientific advice recommended, despite a legally binding commitment to end overfishing. Furthermore, other scientific evidence is (deliberately) misinterpreted. For example Spanish fishermen have demanded higher quotas of bluefin tuna as they claim this endangered species is making a recovery, even though the scientific research clearly states that there is little evidence to prove this.
Blocks to Reform: Changing any aspect of the Common Fisheries Policy – even ones which are clearly broken such as subsidies or destructive and wasteful such as discards – is very difficult indeed. This is because the EU moves at an extremely slow pace with endless committees, reports, investigations and so on having to be carried out before any action can take place, but also because agreements need to be unanimous between all member nations before change can take place. This is a particular problem because nations such as Spain and France almost always try to derail any regulation or rule changes which will disadvantage their fishermen in any way, even if the rule change will help restore fish stocks and benefit everyone in the long term. This can be seen in the discard ban where France and Spain issued a ‘joint declaration’ which aimed to allow discards to continue indefinitely (in the end they only gained small exemptions for themselves). Similarly, an attempt to ban deep-sea trawling was narrowly defeated, even through this practice causes untold damage to ancient and delicate ecosystems and the entire deep-sea trawling fleet is almost entirely French (and runs at a massive loss and is only propped up by EU subsidies). The reasons for the French and Spanish blocking reform are perfectly logical: they have the largest fishing fleets and receive the most in subsidies – Spain in fact has the largest fishing fleet in Europe but does most of its fishing outside of its own territorial waters. Furthermore, CFP Reform Watch state that Spain receives around half of the total subsidies handed out by the EU – a good situation for them but it is a terrible one for Europe’s fish stocks.
Even when change does take place it is painfully slow. The discards ban took three years to agree and came close to being completely derailed or watered down to the point of being useless a number of times. Even when it was agreed in late 2013 it will be phased in between 2015 and 2019, meaning it will have taken almost a decade to fully implement a system which basically amounts to stopping fishermen throwing away perfectly good and edible fish.
Disproportionate Influence of Small Groups: Small interest groups appear to have huge amounts of power and influence with in the EU over the Common fisheries policy which is often hugely disproportionate to their size. For example Greenpeace state that there are only around 34 industrial trawlers from the EU which fish in African waters, but tens of millions of pounds are spent to subsidise this fleet and buy the right to fish off the coast of Africa. Similarly, the EU voted in December 2013 to continue deep-sea trawling, despite the fact only a tiny number of fishermen are employed in this monumentally destructive form of fishing which destroys delicate deep-water ecosystems which will never be able to recover. Indeed, it can be argued that the entire European fishing industry itself is a minority group as it only provides approximately 0.1% of the EU’s total gross domestic product, although the influence and power it has leads many people to believe it is a much bigger and more economically important industry than it actually is.
Future of the Common Fisheries Policy
The failure of the Common Fisheries Policy can be summed up by the following fact: Europe has needed to become the world’s largest importer of both frozen and fresh fish products from the rest of the world as European waters – which should be hugely abundant and productive – are now too depleted to satisfy demand. The Common Fisheries Policy has somehow managed to result in fishermen, anglers, conservationist and the general public all being deeply unhappy over the state of Europe’s seas, while it simultaneously proving utterly incapable of re-building fish stocks which is the one thing which will resolve the situation. As Brendan May, the former Chief Executive of the Marine Stewardship Council states:
The European Common Fisheries Policy is a laughing stock in many parts of the world. People … don’t understand how Europe could get something that should be so simple so badly wrong. The extinction of its own – and the world’s – fisheries is being presided over by people who ought to know better.
(Quoted in C. Clover, 2004, The End of the Line, p 269)
The EU is not immune to the criticism that the CFP had received, and has in fact apologised for the damage to fish stocks the CFP has caused.
As slow, cumbersome and painfully drawn out as it may be the CFP is being positively reformed with the discards ban being phased in from 2015 and other reforms which will include legislation legally binding commitment to fish at sustainable levels. The UK fisheries minister George Eustice has hailed the reforms as measures which will “change the way we fish our seas,” but others have been more pessimistic. Such caution is appropriate as the CFP has a habit of sounding brilliant in theory and proving catastrophic in practice.
Instead of toiling to reform of a broken policy and battling with the vested interests of certain European nations which only care about the short-term interests of their own fishing industry Britain should instead look to Iceland and Norway. These countries may be geographically located in Europe but they are not members of the European Union, meaning they are not signed up the Common Fisheries Policy and fully control commercial fishing in their own waters. These nations do allow a certain number of EU vessels into their waters to fish, but the EU must negotiate this with these countries (the ‘Northern Agreement’) and it is Norway and Iceland who set the quotas themselves and entirely control what happens inside their own Exclusive Economic Zones. This has led to these two nations having some of the richest fish stocks in the world, and both have highly profitable fishing industries which require little to no subsidies from their governments.
Indeed, Iceland has considered applying for EU membership in the past, lodging an application to join in 2009 and then withdrawing it in 2015. Losing control of their own fisheries and having to share their fishing quotas with other European nations is seen as a major factor in Iceland continuing to remain outside of the European Union. In an interview with the BBC carried out just before Britain’s own EU referendum in June 2016 Iceland’s minister for fisheries and agriculture Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson outlined his reasons for Iceland’s reluctance to join the EU:
I would never join the European Union … There is a life outside it, as we have proven. We have one of the biggest and one of the strongest fisheries in the world that is sustainable without any subsidies from the state. We don’t have to share this decision-making with anyone else. It would be difficult for Icelanders to control their economic and fisheries sector having the obligation to discuss it with 27 or 28 other countries.
The Common Fisheries Policy has been in force for decades now and has resulted in persistent failure and an amazing ability to leave all parties with a stake in fishing unhappy, frustrated and angry. The structural faults built into the CFP and the sheer number of different parties vying for a say in what happens next mean that it is effectively impossible to reform the CFP in a way which would restore fish stocks.
UK Referendum on Membership of the European Union and the CFP
Main article: Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries
In 2013 British Prime Minister announced that if the Conservative Party won a majority at the 2015 General Election then an in-out referendum on EU membership would be held by the end of 2017. With the Conservatives winning a clear majority in that election it was eventually announced that the EU referendum would be held on 23rd June 2016.
The result of the referendum was confirmed on the morning of the 24th June 2016 with 52% voting in favour of leave meaning the United Kingdom would begin the process of leaving the European Union. After a number of delays and two further general elections the UK finally left the EU on the 31st March 2020. As a non-EU member Britain now has an opportunity to leave the Common Fisheries Policy and run its own fisheries in a similar way to countries such as Norway and Iceland. For much more detail on this please read our article on Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries by clicking here.