European Fisheries Law Undergoes Review

EU fishermenAfter a recent series of unsavory news reports, the European Commission has announced that its fisheries policy may need to be overhauled due to continued ecological decline and unsustainable fishing practices.

Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg announced a laundry list of flaws with the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in a statement released last week. "In its current form, the CFP does not encourage responsible behavior by either fishermen or politicians," Borg said.

In response, the Commission authorized an immediate review of its ten-year policy. The current fisheries policy has been in effect since 2002.

A reassessment of Europe's fishing regulations could have sweeping implications for dwindling fish populations. About two-thirds of Europe's fisheries are estimated to be exploited at a rate that exceeds sustainable levels, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [PDF].

The Commission is expected to reduce the European fishing fleet as one measure to address the exploited fish stocks. Borg said the current number of vessels can catch between two and three times the government-authorized, maximum sustainable yield.

European countries have been shrinking their fleet capacity since the 2002 policy required a "stable and enduring balance" between capacity and resources. Fleet capacity is based on a vessel's size (tonnage) and power (kilo-watts). Between 2003 and 2005, size was reduced about 6 percent, and power decreased about 7 percent, according to a World Wildlife Fund analysis [PDF].

The fisheries policy has been hotly debated by the fishing industry and environmentalists since its inception. But recently, a series of uncomplimentary news reports have put the policy under heightened scrutiny.

An independent review panel for the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas earlier this month described regulation of bluefin tuna fisheries as "an international disgrace." The review noted that the 2007 catch for the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea fisheries was estimated at 60,000 tons - more than double the legal limit and four times the amount that scientists recommend, according to environmental groups who obtained early access to the report.

In August, a British fishing vessel was caught on film dumping more than 5.5 tons of cod, which amounted to 80 percent of its catch. EU quotas limit the amount of fish that ships can bring back to port, but vessels are not limited on the amount they can catch. The unfortunate result is that 40-60 percent of all fish caught by trawlers in the North Sea are discarded, the EU estimates.

Several environmentalists and fisheries researchers have advocated more dramatic policy changes than what the Commission has so far suggested. For instance, more marine protected areas are being requested. Researchers suggest that at least 20-30 percent of the world's ocean habitats be included in a network of marine reserves - the current level is estimated at 1 percent - to ensure long-term protection of exploited fish stocks, according to the 2007 Worldwatch report Oceans in Peril.

A second alternative approach that has recently gained popularity and scientific support is known as an individual transferable quota (ITQ). Instead of fishermen competing against each other to obtain the greatest share of the total allowable catch set by government scientists each year, individual fishermen are provided a share of the catch, which eliminates the incentive to overfish. Independent observers, and sometimes cameras, ensure that when the harvest is low, everyone brings in a low catch, and when the harvest is high, their catch subsequently increases.

"By doing this, it provides fishermen an incentive to take a long-term view into account. Essentially they make an investment in their future," said Chris Costello, the lead author of a study published in the journal Science last week that found that ITQs implemented in Alaska, Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia reduced the chance of fisheries collapse by 13.7 percent.

Unsustainable management of fisheries is not just a problem in Europe. Increased seafood consumption and more efficient fishing technologies have led to the depletion of fish stocks globally in recent years. If current trends continue, the world's fish stocks risk collapse by 2048, according to a 2006 study in the journal Science. 

"Every fishery in the world could benefit from some form of incentive-based management system," said Costello, a resources economics professor at University of California in Santa Barbra. "The critical feature is to design those incentive-based schemes for the biology of the species, the culture of the communities, and the economies of the fisheries."

While the number of ITQs remains low - about 1 percent of global fisheries - Costello predicts they will double in number within the next ten years. Some European fisheries have already switched to the incentive-based system, such as a few small fisheries in the Netherlands.

Ben Block is a reporter with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at