21 February 2023
‘Ocean Package’: under the influence of industrial lobbies, the European Commission gives up on saving marine life and the climate
21 February 2023
Press release – Paris, Brussels, 21 February 2023
Two years that NGOs and citizens have been waiting for the ‘package’ of four documents including the European Commission’s ‘Ocean Action Plan’, expected as the Holy Grail that would allow to save the ocean and the climate from ongoing destruction. Instead, citizens will have to mourn any hope of political institutions saving nature and our climate future.
The four documents (an evaluation of the Common Fisheries Policy, an evaluation of the common organization of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products, an action plan for the protection and restoration of marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries and a strategy for the energy transition of EU fisheries) reveal the lack of vision and political courage of the European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius. While the ambitions stated in the recital create an impression of awareness, awakening and courage, the measures proposed are weak and far removed from the catastrophic situation they are supposed to address. In reality, these documents formalize a troubling fact for younger generations and our common future: the inability of institutions to rise up to the existential issues that hang over our society, i.e. the collapse of biodiversity and the climate, as well as the disappearance of truly sustainable, small-scale jobs.
The Commission relinquishes its power
The European Commission, who holds a monopoly on the legislative initiative at EU level, has decided on a content and schedule that satisfy industrial fishing lobbies. Indeed, the Commission refrained from formulating a legislative proposal for a regulation which, if it had been released early enough, would have had time to be completed before 2024 and would have been binding for all EU Member States. Instead, the documents provide mere ‘guidance’ and ‘recommendations’, including an uninspired ‘Ocean Action Plan’, published on 21 February 2023, i.e. on a date that prevents these documents from making any difference from the outset, given that European elections are a year away and that Brussels is almost already at a standstill.
An Ocean Action Plan that falls short of necessary structural reforms
After two years of constant adjournments due to pressure from industrial fishing lobbies, the European Commission has finally published its Ocean Action Plan, a 24-page document supposed to translate the ‘EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030’ into concrete actions. “While the Biodiversity Strategy had ambition and promised to ‘bring nature back into our lives’, the plan, which could be described as ‘inaction’ for the ocean, completely fails to set out a visionary course and commitment to the structural transitions that our society must perform in order to create a harmonious and truly ‘sustainable’ relationship with the ocean. Industrial fishing, recognized by IPBES scientists as the primary cause of the destruction of the ocean, still has a bright future ahead of it,” regrets Claire Nouvian, founder of BLOOM.
Even though industrial fisheries have reduced the populations of large fish such as cod, halibut, sharks, groupers, tuna, swordfish and marlin by 90% since 1950, and the ocean needs to be healthy to fulfill its role as a ‘carbon pump’, the Commission has chosen to relinquish its political power by only issuing an ‘Action Plan’ that puts the responsibility of action on EU Member States. In short: nothing legally binding, but a series of recommendations and generous deadlines.
In these dense documents, which BLOOM will analyze in detail in the coming hours, there is a real step forward, although still far from expectations, on Marine Protected Areas. Among the useful elements that survived the vetoing of industrial lobbies, the European Commission highlights that ‘Fishing using certain mobile bottom-contact gear (mobile bottom fishing), in particular bottom trawling, is among the most widespread and damaging activities to the seabed and its associated habitats‘, also underlining ‘the importance of storing and maintaining blue carbon in marine habitats for tackling climate change.’ As a result, and for the first time, the European Commission is calling on EU Member States to ban all bottom-contacting fishing gear in all EU Marine Protected Areas, endorsing some of the recommendations from scientists and environmental groups.
‘We would have preferred the Commission to propose legally binding deadlines and tools to force EU Member States to protect their Marine Protected Areas right away, said Swann Bommier, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at BLOOM, “but at least the Commission is setting some clear criteria that will allow us to put an end to the imposture of Marine Protected Areas ‘à la française’”. Today, the so-called Marine ‘Protected’ Areas in France are by no means spared from the ravages of industrial fishing. A study by BLOOM has shown that as much industrial fishing occurs within MPAs as in non-‘protected’ areas.
‘France, who will host the United Nations Ocean Conference in Nice in 2025, must implement the European Commission’s MPA recommendations without further delay’, concludes Swann Bommier.
Originally expected in 2021, the ‘EU Ocean Action Plan’ has turned out to be a lure: while it responds to some of the warnings of scientists and environmental protection organizations, the EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius has lacked the courage and political assertiveness to take immediate action to protect the ocean and humankind in the face of the climate emergency and the collapse of ecosystems, as well as to help the fisheries sector transition towards a low environmental impact.
One last opportunity remains for the European Union to put an end to the destruction of marine ecosystems by industrial fishers before the cut-off point of the 2024 European elections: the ‘Nature Restoration Law’, on which the European Parliament and Council are currently working under the explicit threat of the European right-wing, which refuses to protect the environment.
Photo : Dmitry Osipenko