Monday, 25 February 2013

The 'elephant in the room' for European fisheries reform

February 6th will be long remembered as a good day for European fisheries as a series of major reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy were voted through the European Parliament by a massive 502 to 157 majority. The Bill covers key issues such as a progressive ban on discarding non-target caught fish, on tighter regulation of fisheries to ensure Maximum Sustainable Yield, on eco-labelling and, most importantly, on the regionalisation of fisheries management. This is a key round in a long battle for sustainable fishing and even though the battle is far from over (negotiations must continue with fisheries ministers and the European Commission), those who have worked for years to convince legislators and the fishing industry have good reason to celebrate. But, as I am about to explain, there is still an ‘elephant in the room’...

In the steamy heat of the Indian Ocean, far away from the warren of committee rooms and offices in the European Parliament and well outside its legislative influence, a fisheries dispute was unfolding that is typical of many around the world.  I was attending a conference at India’s National Institute of Oceanography and wondered why some of the famous Goan fish curries were missing from the menu until I picked up a copy of the previous day’s Navhind Times: “Protest against hike in diesel price. Fishing trawlers to go on indefinite strike from Jan 29”.  Some 1,200 vessels had already been tied up for three days by the All Goa Fishing Trawler Owners Federation in protest at a 22% diesel price hike by the Indian Government. The Government doesn’t determine crude oil prices of course but regulates the cost of diesel to different sectors through taxation and subsidies. According to the 29th January Navhind Times, the government had reclassified the trawler owners as ‘commercial customers’ rather than ‘retail customers’, implying the removal of a subsidy equivalent to about US 10 cents per litre. That doesn’t sound much – an extra cost of US$20 per day for the average trawler, but it was enough to trigger a major strike and tells something about the tiny profit margins and unsustainability of this industry. By 30 January, the Government had changed its mind and trawler owners were reassured that they could purchase diesel from commercial forecourts and would have the subsidy reimbursed and that bulk buying arrangements would be renegotiated. Fish markets reopened on 31 January; the Goa Herald had reported a 250% increase in the price of small mackerel during the strike, a huge pressure on consumers.

The subsidies conflict in India is trivial compared to that brewing in the European Union.  For many years, most European fisheries have been heavily subsidised. Perhaps ‘heavily’ is an understatement; a report published 18 months ago by the NGO Oceana (you can link to it at the end of the entry) claimed that, in 2009, subsidies totalled a staggering €3.3 billion and that in 13 countries, subsidies were greater than the value of the catch! Research led by my colleague Sheila (JJ) Heymans (also linked to below) demonstrated that, in the case of North Sea fisheries, removal of the subsidies would increase the overall profitability of the fishery and the total biomass of commercially important species, despite reducing total catch and revenue. I discussed this issue last week with Struan Stevenson, Senior Vice-Chairman of the European Parliament Fisheries Commission. He explained how subsidies had been misused by some countries in the past by using funds designed to improve the efficiency and safety of vessels in order to strip them down to their bare hulls and rebuild them with hugely superior catching capability. He also noted that the issue of subsidies has not been part of the current bill and would be dealt with later this year. This is the ‘elephant in the room’ that I mentioned earlier.

Back in the negotiating rooms of Brussels, there is still a feeling of unease about the fate of the Common Fisheries Policy Reform approved by the European Parliament. The next step in the process will be the so-called ‘trialogue’; negotiations between the three powers determining the direction of the CFP. These are the European Commission with overall administrative power, the Fisheries Commission (consisting of Member State Ministers) who represent the executive power of governments, and the European Parliament with EU-level legislative power. The huge vote supporting reforms will make it difficult for the Fisheries Council to ‘water down’ the parliamentary proposals… but they will probably try. And there are many key details to be resolved such as what to do with all the smaller size fish that will be landed. Opinions are divided between supplying it to poorer people and selling it and creating a conservation fund with 50% of the profits, the remainder going to fishermen to cover fuel costs.

From my perspective, it is the nature and level of subsidies that will ultimately determine the shape of global fisheries and the effectiveness of measures to regulate them. In Scotland’s North Sea fishery for example, subsidies have been severely reduced and 60% of the fleet scrapped (with considerable pain for the industry) but the industry has proven resilient and profitable and is setting new standards for others to follow. Struan Stevenson told me that the European Union has until Jan 14, 2014 to set its own reformed rules for subsidies. The new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund will have a total budget of some €6.9 billion for a 6 year period and this has to cover all maritime activities, including marine planning. If the several thousand individual amendments tabled to proposals cannot be resolved by then, there will be a ‘fisheries fiscal cliff’ with no legal basis for further spending.  The fisheries reform story has a long way to run and it is no time for triumphalism; only a smile and a thank you to our European legislators and the fishing industry for their confidence in taking the first decisive steps.


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