EU sea change over fish discards an Irish success

Thu, Feb 28, 2013, 00:00

Analysis:Sharp divisions exist among EU countries over the merits of a total ban

As Brussels standards go it was a long meeting. Bleary- eyed ministers emerged from negotiations on the Common Fisheries Policy at 6am yesterday, with a commitment to end the practice of fish discards, a key strand of EU fisheries reform.

Discarding occurs when fishermen throw back fish because they have exceeded their quota or caught species for which they have no quota.An estimated 25 per cent of the fish caught by EU boats are thrown back into the sea, with the percentage believed to be as high as 50 per cent in some areas.

Public criticism

The EU quota system has meant that many fishermen are incentivised to throw less valuable, or over-quota, fish back into the sea, a process that has prompted widespread public criticism, particularly in the UK. The dumping of edible fish has also caused unease throughout Europe in the current austere times.

EU fisheries policy has long been one of the most controversial aspect of European Union law. In 2009, the European Commission initiated a review of the process. It found that the current system, which dates back to 1983, was in urgent need of reform. As well as widespread evidence of overfishing and depleted stock, there were indications the quota system was not working, and was leading to the widespread practice of throwing fish that were over-quota back into the sea.

Shortcomings

There were also serious shortcomings in relation to the efficacy of the single market, with about two-thirds of fish on sale in the EU sourced from non-EU waters. It is in this context that a radical reform of European fisheries policy has been initiated, one element of which is the discard ban.

The aim is that the new fisheries policy will take effect from next year, but the process involves a laborious series of negotiation between the three European institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europ Ministers, representing ministers from each member state.

With the commission already having stated its position, the parliament voiced its opinion earlier this month, with MEP’s voting by an overwhelming majority for a total ban on discards. This week it was the turn of the member states through their fisheries ministers.

While they had already accepted the principle of some form of discard ban back in June, the specifics were still up for negotiation. Yesterday, they agreed a common position – the phased introduction of a ban on discards from January 2014.

This includes the introduction of a ban on the discarding of pelagic fish, ie fish like herring and whiting that live close to the surface, from January 2014, which will be extended to white fish stocks from 2016.

Exemptions

A number of exemptions were also included, most significantly, the so-called “de minimus” exemption which allows crews operating far from land to discard 9 per cent of fish caught, a percentage that will reduce to 7 per cent in time, under certain specified conditions.

While the deal was hailed as a watershed moment for Europe’s fisheries policy, there were some fears in Brussels yesterday that the agreement was not ambitious enough. Campaigners have pointed out that it fell short of the parliament’s proposal for a complete ban, and warned that the inclusion of “exceptions” could lead to exploitation in the future. Yesterday’s agreement is also only one stage of the process. The Council of Ministers, under the chairmanship of Ireland, will now begin negotiations with the European Parliament on the final proposal, and the question is how far MEPs will be prepared to go in terms of changes regarding discards.

Securing agreement on the common fisheries policy is a key priority for Ireland during its presidency of the European Council. Virtually all parties are keen to secure agreement before the end of June.

The achievement by the Irish presidency in securing an agreement among member states should not be underestimated.

Sharp divisions exist among them with countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Germany in favour of a total ban, with Mediterranean countries such as France, Portugal and Spain less keen.

Achieving reform of EU fishing policy, however limited in scope, would be a genuine watershed moment for Europe, and a commendable achievement for Ireland.

Fish deal Main points

The EU Common Fisheries Policy is being reformed, with the new policy expected to come into effect in 2014.

A central element of EU fisheries policy is the controversial issue of discards – the process by which 25 per cent of all fish caught in EU waters is discarded .

EU fisheries ministers reached agreement on a proposal to end discards, with some exemptions.

This will now be discussed with the European Parliament over the coming months,

and Ireland hopes to reach agreement by the end of the Irish presidency in June.

From January 2014 the ban will apply to pelagic stocks, such as herring and whiting (ie fish that survive close to the surface).

From January 2016 the ban will apply to all white fish, including demersal fish (species that live close to the bottom of the sea).

The discard ban will apply to all fisheries in the Mediterranean and Black Sea from January 2017.

Fishermen in certain areas operating in mixed fisheries will be permitted to discard 9 per cent of their catch, eventually reducing to 7 per cent.

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