European parliament

Last votes for the ocean in the European Parliament: setting the course for the next term of office

On Thursday January 18, 2024, members of the European Parliament will have one last opportunity to vote on the future of the ocean and fishing in the European Union. While the industrial fishing lobbies are in the driver’s seat, a cross-party parliamentary coalition formed on the initiative of ecologist MEP Caroline Roose has submitted a series of amendments to defend international scientific recommendations and set a course favorable to the ocean and social justice.

As scientists call for urgent action to address climate disruption and biodiversity loss, the European Commission’s STECF warns about the disregard for equity and social justice in fishing quota allocations. Amid these concerns, the European Parliament is set to review two reports on marine ecosystem protection and the future of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Read also: No man’s land for the Nature Restoration Law

Two own-initiative reports on fisheries: a missed opportunity for the ecological transition

As the world’s leading maritime power, the European Union bears a major responsibility for protecting the ocean and those who depend upon it. As a genuine planetary thermostat, the ocean absorbs almost a third of our CO2 emissions and produces half of our oxygen. Preserving a living ocean is therefore imperative to guarantee the survival of humanity. At the same time, European fishers, most of whom work on small-scale fishing vessels, are powerless to prevent the destruction of marine ecosystems by industrial fishing vessels that monopolize fishing quotas. European fishing thus faces a major challenge in terms of social justice.

These are the challenges to which the own-initiative reports by Niclas Herbst and Gabriel Mato should respond. Unfortunately, they do not. The key measures recommended by the IPCC, IPBES and IUCN to halt the decline of ocean ecosystems and the fishing communities that depend upon them are currently absent from these two own-initiative reports. Even more worryingly, the European Commission’s Action Plan, which calls on EU Member States to implement existing EU law and take the necessary measures for the ocean and small-scale fisheries, is subject to relentless attacks and falsehoods that do not reflect the complexity of the subject and the urgency to act.

A cross-party parliamentary coalition has sought to rectify these shortcomings by tabling a series of amendments to protect the ocean and Europe’s small-scale fishing industry, and respond effectively to the social and environmental challenges we face.


Niclas Herbst’s report fails to protect and restore marine ecosystems

On 21 February 2023, the European Commission published its Action Plan to “protect and restore marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries“. Based on existing European law and international scientific recommendations, this Action Plan set out a timetable for implementing a series of crucial measures enshrined in European law to reconcile ocean protection with the ecological transition of the fishing industry.

Niclas Herbst’s own-initiative report, however, adopts the rhetoric of those who support the status quo, and amounts to a methodical destruction of any environmental and social ambitions on the part of the European Commission: there is no mention of the inaction of EU Member States on marine protection over the last thirty years. There are repeated attempts to discredit the Commission, stating that “the Commission’s action plan lacks a coherent approach with other priorities and strategies“, that “proportionality considerations are not properly taken into account in Commission proposals“, or “regrets the lack of coherence in the title of the action plan“. Scientific falsehoods are also asserted unscrupulously, going so far as to claim that “trawling is considered by science as sustainable and compatible with achieving seabed conservation objectives or stocks being exploited above maximum sustainable yield levels“.

To better reflect the scientific consensus and the diversity of the transitions to be made, a cross-party coalition of European parliamentarians has tabled 14 amendments to be put to the vote this Thursday, January 18. These amendments recall the international scientific recommendations in terms of:

  • protection and restoration of marine ecosystems,
  • transition of the fishing sector to reduce the impact of destructive fishing techniques,
  • equity in quota allocation, in accordance with Article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Four of these are of major importance in reconciling environmental, climatic, social and economic issues:

  • Amendments 8 and 10, concerning Marine Protected Areas, are based on the recommendations of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the leading international organization in the field of ecosystem protection.
    • Amendment 8 aims to align European marine protection standards with international scientific benchmarks and “reiterates its call to prohibit all environmentally damaging extractive industrial activities, such as mining and fossil fuel extraction, in marine protected areas
    • Amendment 10 takes account of the dual social and environmental requirements we have to meet, by “welcoming the fact that the action plan calls on Member States to progressively phase out bottom trawling in MPAs” and “stresses that long-term visibility and financial support is needed to ensure a just transition that leaves no fisher behind”.
  • Amendment 13, on the protection of waters and European coastal fishing, echoes the debates held during the adoption of the Nature Restoration Law and the commitments made by Stéphane Séjourné, then chairman of the RENEW delegation at the European Parliament, in favor of protecting European coastal fishing from mega-trawlers, and “calls for fishing vessels over 25 meters in length to be prohibited from fishing in EU waters up to 12 nautical miles from the baselines“.
  • Amendment 14, on fishing quotas, pursues an objective of social justice and social and environmental performance in the fisheries sector, in accordance with the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy. As such, this amendment “recalls that Member States must fully implement Article 17 CFP when allocating fishing opportunities; calls on the Member States to allocate fishing opportunities on the basis of transparent and objective criteria based on the social and environmental performance of fishing fleets“.

These amendments map out a coherent, equitable future, likely to bring the ocean back to life, and favorable to the development of sustainable coastal and artisanal fishing. If we are to set a satisfactory course in light of the climate emergency and the collapse of biodiversity, these amendments must be adopted.

Read also: Ocean rescue needed for the Nature Restoration Law

Gabriel Mato’s report proposes to deregulate the fishing industry in favor of the industrial sector

In 2020, the European Environment Agency reported a sharp loss of biodiversity in over 80% of European seas. While the collapse of various fish stocks has been avoided, the situation remains alarming, with overfishing affecting many stocks, the continued destruction of ecosystems by destructive fishing gear, and diesel prices forcing a whole section of the industry to make the transition.

At the end of this term of office, Gabriel Mato’s own-initiative report on the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy and its future should have set the course for the Common Fisheries Policy to support this transition. Unfortunately, as the text progresses, the report multiplies its attacks on stock management mechanisms and small-scale fishing. Some particularly worrying assertions are made to promote the interests of industrialists, such as the false claim that “scientists recognize that achieving MSY for all stocks simultaneously is, in practice, impossible“, that “the landing obligation makes many mixed fisheries unprofitable” and that it would be advisable to “maintain the existing exemptions to the landing obligation“, or that “the current use of gross tonnage as a yardstick for measuring fishing capacity in the EU could hamper improvements in energy efficiency, safety and comfort of vessels“.

Furthermore, while vessels of less than 12 meters using low-impact fishing methods represent 70% of the European fleet, they only account for 10% of catches, because the European quota allocation system favors the largest vessels, thereby hindering the development of virtuous artisanal and coastal fishing, local employment and a dynamic European coastal economy. Gabriel Mato’s report states that the system that has already allowed industrial fishing to monopolize quotas for years, through the primacy given to historical fishing rights, should be maintained, going so far as to “welcome the fact that the current allocation methods based largely on historical rights allow for a certain level of economic stability in the fishing sector, which can be a condition enabling operators to innovate and adopt more sustainable techniques“.

To safeguard the ocean and Europe’s artisanal fishermen, MEP Ska Keller has proposed five key amendments for the Green Group. These amendments, aimed at rectifying the bias towards industrial fishing, are essential for addressing the ecological and social crisis.

  • Amendment 3, concerning management based on maximum sustainable yield, removes an unfounded assertion that amounts to an unprecedented attack on an essential stock management tool, by declaring that “species management based on the MSY model is impossible to apply, even in scientifically well-known and documented fisheries“.
  • Amendment 4, concerning the landing obligation, aims to re-establish the legitimacy of this obligation, which Gabriel Mato’s report attacks for allowing industrialists to throw dead fish that are caught and are not profitable enough overboard, stating, among other things, that “the landing obligation cannot be properly implemented if some shortcomings, such as the lack of storage capacity on board or collection facilities at port as well as adequate usage of exemptions, are not improved;“.
  • Amendment 5, on stock management and total allowable catches, once again seeks to defend an essential tool for preserving marine biodiversity and fish stocks, by deleting a paragraph from the report that amounts to an all-out attack on all fisheries management tools, by suggesting “removing the TACs for certain stocks“.
  • Amendments 6 and 7, relating to the modernization of the European fishing fleet, aim to remove proposals encouraging the race to make the European fishing fleet even bigger, under the guise of energy transition. There is an urgent need to de-trawl fleets and develop small-scale fishing, rather than replace old trawlers with hydrogen-powered trawlers of greater tonnage and engine power, using public funds when technology so permits.
    • Amendment 6 thus aims to maintain tonnage restrictions in the management of the European fleet, while Gabriel Mato’s report states that “the current use of gross tonnage as a yardstick for measuring fishing capacity in the EU could hamper improvements in energy efficiency, safety and comfort of vessels, as it limits possibilities to replace and modernise them.
    • Amendment 7 seeks to ensure that public funds are not used to “replace” diesel trawlers with hydrogen trawlers.

These five amendments oppose the destruction of stock management tools and the European fishing fleet in favor of industrial fishing. Their adoption is vital if the transition of the fishing industry is to be truly ecological and social.

Members of parliament must set the course

In 2025, the third United Nations Conference on the Oceans will be held on European soil. As the world’s leading maritime power, the European Union must set an example, and equip itself with a maritime public policy equal to the social, climatic and environmental challenges of the century.

On Thursday January 18, it will be possible to vote for a living ocean and virtuous fishing. With just a few months to go before the European elections, this final vote is not just about making grand speeches, it is also a final, full-scale test of the social and ecological ambitions of European parliamentarians, and their ability to take international scientific recommendations into account.


Picture credit : European Parliament, Mitoller, Pixabay

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