It is sink or swim in Europe for fish and fishermen

The EU fisheries ministers are at best lukewarm about the overfishing crisis

Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney needs to follow the example of the European Parliament and keep his eye firmly on the targets it approved in February. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney needs to follow the example of the European Parliament and keep his eye firmly on the targets it approved in February. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


How much blue is in the Irish green?

Irish diplomats in Brussels assure me that the colour chosen for Ireland’s EU presidency logo is not “the usual green”, but a shade of green known as teal. I would describe it as a greenish-blue close to the colour of the sea.

Who best then to personify this marine match than a native of the important port city of Cork, a keen sailor who also happens to be Minister for the Marine? Simon Coveney has a proud maritime heritage and is not afraid to don the teal presidency tie at EU meetings.

But is this as far as his commitment to the health of our oceans and the future of fishing will go?

Coveney now finds himself in the treacherous waters of a fundamental reform of EU fishing rules. He has promised to steer the process to a deal between European governments and the European Parliament by the end of the presidency in June. And not a moment too soon.

Thirty years of the EU’s common fisheries policy have fuelled a fleet of oversized factory trawlers that have decimated fish populations, trashed marine habitats and pushed many fishermen out of business. The New Economics Foundation estimates that overfishing costs the EU at least €3 billion in missed catches every year, which could support more than 100,000 additional jobs in fishing.

Yet, Coveney and his crew of European fisheries ministers are at best lukewarm about efforts to stop overfishing.

About half of assessed stocks in the Atlantic and 80 per cent in the Mediterranean are overfished, along with five out of seven fish stocks in the Baltic. The decline in fish numbers and the dominance of a handful of large industrial operators have made fishing unprofitable. As a result, 30 per cent of fishing jobs have been lost in the past decade, most of them in the small-scale sector.

Many of those who are still fishing can only do so by relying on public subsidies. Some of the big operators have abused the system and are still given taxpayers’ money for their huge fuel-guzzling factory ships.

Spain has the largest fishing capacity in Europe and used at least €2 billion to boost its fleet between 2000 and 2010. The fishing capacity of Spanish vessels that fish outside EU waters is almost three times that of the entire Irish fleet.

Smaller in numbers but second to none in size is the fleet of Dutch-owned super trawlers of the Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association. They include the former Atlantic Dawn , now called Annelies Ilena – the world’s second largest fishing vessel at more than 140m.

Its fishing capacity is equal to a quarter of the entire Irish fishing capacity, with the whole fleet catching more than twice as much as the Irish fleet. These super trawlers often fish close to Irish waters, in direct competition with Irish fishermen.

In February, Coveney was thrown a lifeline for the negotiations when the European Parliament put its weight behind a comprehensive reform. It voted for an end to overfishing by 2015 and the recovery of fish populations to sustainable levels by 2020. As fisheries ministers tread water, Coveney needs to follow the example of the parliament and keep his eye firmly on these targets.

The rewards would be significant: in the US annual dockside revenues increased in 2010 by about 92 per cent – 54 per cent when adjusted for inflation – for stocks that have been rebuilt to levels above the so-called maximum sustainable yield. Unlike the EU, the US and other major fishing nations around the world have long adopted stock recovery targets.

It is sink or swim for fish and fishermen in Europe, as over 200 civil society groups told Coveney in an open letter last week. Without a deal to end overfishing by 2015 and a commitment to allow fish stocks to recover within the coming decade, Ireland’s blue-green promise will end in a washout, and Europe will be unable to reap the benefits of sustainable fishing.

Saskia Richartz is EU fisheries policy director for Greenpeace.

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