Q&A: Reform of EU fishing policy

Spanish trawler crew sorting anchovies - file pic The EU faces the challenge of making fishing both sustainable and profitable

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The European Parliament has approved a package of major reforms to the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), designed to cut waste and stop overfishing in European waters.

Under the plan, the existing system of fishing quotas - which often leads to tonnes of perfectly good fish being dumped at sea - will be reformed.

For the first time MEPs have legislative power in this policy area. They are proposing amendments to a European Commission reform plan for the CFP. But there will be more negotiations with the 27 fisheries ministers this year before the changes become EU law.

What is wrong with the existing system?

The European Commission says the current policy is wasteful - 75% of stocks are still overfished and catches are only a fraction of what they were 15-20 years ago. Catches of cod for example have declined by 70% in the last 10 years.

The Commission believes that the "top down" system of micro-managing fisheries from Brussels is failing and that decision-making needs to be decentralised.

The method of allocating fishing quotas EU-wide has contributed to the serious depletion of stocks, the Commission says. Crews that haul in more than the agreed quota often throw large quantities of dead fish back into the sea - the much-criticised "discards".

The system is not meeting the European market's needs. Fish imported from non-EU countries now accounts for two-thirds of the fish sold in the EU.

What was the current policy designed to do?

The idea of agreed quotas was to make Europe's fishing stable and sustainable and prevent conflicts arising where foreign trawlers fish in a country's waters.

The quota system - called Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for each fish stock - is at the heart of the CFP, launched in 1983. The TACs are based on a country's previous catches.

Over time Europe's fishing fleets have grown too large for the dwindling fish stocks, but fisheries ministers are often reluctant to see their national TACs reduced. The Commission says the CFP has been plagued by short-term decision-making.

How does the EU plan to protect fish stocks now?

The practice of discards must be phased out, the Commission says. In future trawlers will have to land their entire catch - and that means member states will have to ensure that better technology is installed to monitor compliance.

The Commission says fisheries should be managed on an "ecosystem" basis - there needs to be more flexibility in the system and more scientific data needs to be collected on a larger number of fish species.

The parliament's lead negotiator, German Social Democrat Ulrike Rodust, says the EU should scrap the annual bargaining over quotas, replacing that with an eco-friendly system based on "maximum sustainable yield" (MSY).

Under MSY, there would be a limit to the catch for each species based on its reproduction rate - in other words, the rate at which the stock is replenished. Ms Rodust accepts that for MSY to become the benchmark in 2015, as outlined in her legislative report, more scientific data will be needed.

A new funding mechanism will be set up for 2014-2020 called the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), with a budget of 6.7bn euros (£6bn).

Part of that fund will help support small-scale coastal fleets. Member states will be able to restrict fishing in a zone within 12 nautical miles of the coast, up to the year 2022.

But Ms Rodust's report objects to some Commission proposals to make fishing more market-driven.

The Commission said large fleets should be allocated transferable catch shares, called "concessions", which they would be able to trade, in response to local conditions.

Ms Rodust argues that such choices should remain in the hands of national authorities, not the EU.

She does not want "an allocation system being imposed at European level", and instead "member states will remain free to establish - or not to establish - a system of transferable fishing concessions".

What is the time frame for the changes?

Originally the Commission wanted the new CFP to be in place by 1 January this year, but the timetable has slipped.

MEPs now hope to reach a final deal on the reforms with the Council (EU governments) in June.

The plan is to start adopting the MSY approach to fisheries management in 2015, and from 2014 discards are to be phased out.

What has been the response so far to the plan?

The UK government is enthusiastic. UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon said more work must be done to encourage consumers to buy a wider range of fish.

That message was echoed by Sainsbury's, which said "it is imperative that supermarkets such as Sainsbury's help create the consumer demand for lesser known species by promoting them to our customers".

Scottish Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead said the EU reforms "need to be a lot more radical".

He praised the Commission's emphasis on conservation of stocks, but said more carefully targeted measures would be needed to stop discards.

The environmental group Oceana called for proper management plans for a much larger number of fish stocks.

It voiced concern that the Commission plan "doesn't establish any mechanisms to deal with landed by-catch". There is a risk that the surplus fish landed - instead of being discarded at sea - will simply be sold and that could incentivise overfishing, Oceana says.

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