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ClientEarth Communications

3rd December 2020

Wildlife & habitats
Fisheries & Seafood

Sustainable fishing limits – a decision-maker’s handbook on science and law

Every winter, EU fisheries ministers set fishing limits for the year ahead – a decision critical for ensuring sustainable fisheries management. But despite the EU’s legal deadline to end overfishing by 2020 and restore fish stocks above healthy and productive levels, many limits are set above advice put forward by scientists. This failure to follow the science and to set sustainable fishing limits means many stocks are still struggling and the EU continues to fall short of its goal to end overfishing.

So how do we make our way to sustainable limits?

To achieve the EU’s sustainability goals, fishing limits must be set in line with the law and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES)’s scientific advice on sustainable catch levels.

However, if science and the law are the boundaries within which fishing limits should be set, then why are they so often not respected?

One reason may be because there are several key concepts decision-makers need to grapple with when setting fishing limits (or ‘Total Allowable Catches’ (TACs)), which are technical in nature and complex when considered alongside other environmental and scientific issues.

To help decision-makers and stakeholders better understand how these concepts should be applied in practice when setting sustainable fishing limits, we have broken them down into a series of clear and digestible briefings.

The briefings - explained

The first four briefings explain the key concepts referred to in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – the main law regulating EU fisheries – and in the ICES advice:

To put the above concepts into practice, the remaining briefings cover a range of key issues that need to be considered in light of the EU discard ban (or “landing obligation”) and the dire state some stocks are in:

  • TAC-setting in the context of the landing obligation” highlights the enormous risk of turning a blind eye to non-compliance and using total catch advice (rather than landings) when setting TACs. This approach assumes all catches are landed, when in reality compliance remains poor. A catch-based TAC and continued illegal discarding means catches may far exceed scientific advice.
  • Scientific advice for bycatch stocks that have zero catch advice” provides a guide to navigating the minefield of different catch scenarios decision-makers request. It explains why the official ICES headline advice is the “best available scientific advice” for these vulnerable stocks and what decision-makers need to do to rebuild them.
  • Catch documentation under the landing obligation” examines the importance of reliable monitoring and reporting of catches especially when there are exemptions from the landing obligation. The briefing explains where things are currently going wrong and how they should be fixed.
  • What proportion of fish stocks are sustainably managed in the EU?” explains how to ensure that reports published by decision-makers and stakeholders are comprehensive, reliable and explicit about their limitations. Misleadingly positive reports make it easier for decision-makers to ignore the issues that need to be addressed and continue business as usual.