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ClientEarth Communications

28th March 2022

Wildlife & habitats
Fisheries & Seafood

We are challenging the EU to end overfishing

We are taking legal action against EU ministers for allowing hugely unsustainable fishing to take place, damaging fish populations beyond measure. In fact, 40% of fish stocks in the North-East Atlantic are still overfished – meaning they are being fished faster than they can breed and recover their numbers.

EU ministers representing each country in the EU Council are supposed to collectively set fishing limits that protect species from being fished too much, and in Europe they had a legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020. But despite this, fishing limits set for 2022 were above the sustainable scientific advice  for one third of the commercial fish stocks managed by the EU and UK. For Pollack, the limit agreed exceeds what scientists advised by almost 1,000 tonnes – the equivalent of around 100,000 pollacks.

Why is overfishing such a big problem?

Overfishing not only threatens the numbers of certain species of fish, but also the whole of the ecosystems they live in. A declining species will have an impact on the rest of its food chain, as well as the biodiversity of the area and the  ocean’s ability to absorb carbon.

Coastal communities who rely on fishing as a source of income are also impacted. While governments invest in ramping up industrial-level fishing vessels, it is often coastal businesses who are seeing their efforts go unrewarded.

Our fisheries lawyer Arthur Meeus said: “If ministers don’t follow the science and protect stocks, the price will be paid not only by fish and fishers, but by all of us – in climate and food security terms.

“This case is about holding EU fisheries ministers collectively responsible for illegally setting unsustainable fishing limits. We want to make sure they stop ignoring the law and focus on what is beneficial for us and future generations.”

How can we stop overfishing?

Despite progress over the years, fisheries ministers have ignored scientific advice and missed legal deadlines to end overfishing.

So what should governments do to finally ensure all fishing is sustainable for 2022 and beyond?

1. Follow the science

Many stocks are in such bad shape that scientists advise limiting catches significantly, or even stopping fishing those species altogether. Ministers may think they are helping fishers’ businesses by allowing unsustainable fishing, but in the long-term, the resulting species collapse would be far worse for people who rely on fishing for income.

Allowing declining species to recover is in the long-term interest of healthy ecosystems and the fishers that depend on them.

2. Enforce the fishing rules at sea

Setting rules in line with scientific advice can only take us so far – these rules have to be respected while at sea. Last year, five EU countries were given a ‘red card’ by the European Commission for not properly tackling the issue of bycatch being illegally thrown back overboard. Governments must properly check fishing vessels to enforce the rules.

What is ClientEarth doing to make fishing sustainable?

We are arguing that setting fishing limits above scientific advice is in breach of EU law in our request to the Council to revise its fishing limits.

In doing this, we’re directly challenging all EU countries at once as they are collectively responsible for encouraging and support overfishing. This is the first time fishing limits have been directly challenged at EU level, thanks to our success last year on improving access to justice rules in the EU.

That case resulted in a landmark reform of access to justice laws in the EU – lifting the barriers that prevented NGOs and individual people from challenging the EU directly on environmental issues. The case took thirteen years but it has opened the door to a new way to bring legal challenges against environmental wrongdoings.