Press release: 17 October 2022

EU Council is facing court to avoid repeat of Baltic fish stock collapse

The EU ministers gathering today in Council meeting to set next year’s fishing limits for the Baltic Sea have all been taken to court by ClientEarth environmental lawyers for enabling overfishing.

In a case filed before the Court of Justice of the EU on the eve of the meeting, ClientEarth lawyers have challenged two previous EU Council decisions, both of which ignored scientific advice. These are the decisions setting the 2022 fishing limits in the North-East Atlantic for fish stocks in EU waters and for transboundary fish stocks shared between EU and UK waters.

EU ministers agreed, for instance, to set limits at double the amount scientists recommended, or allowed fishers to catch from stocks that have a ‘zero catch’ advice from scientists to try to bring them back from the edge of extinction.

ClientEarth had submitted ‘internal review requests’ on both the EU-UK and EU-only fishing limit decisions, a prerequisite for taking court action against EU institutions. However, the Council refused to review the decisions, so ClientEarth is now proceeding to file court action.

Commercial fish stocks are still in a bad shape in Europe, after ministers failed to fulfil their legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020.

The Baltic Sea is in a particularly dire state – most of its commercial stocks, including cod, have collapsed – 93% of Mediterranean stocks within EU waters are overfished and 40% of stocks in the North-East Atlantic are considered to be in bad shape.

ClientEarth fisheries lawyer Arthur Meeus said:

“The extremely worrying state of certain Baltic Sea stocks is a cautionary tale – this is what happens when you don’t listen to scientific advice and exceed the sustainable limits of what you can take from the sea for years. We are taking legal action to ensure we don’t end up in the same situation in the North-East Atlantic.

“Following scientific advice is the only solution to make EU commercial fisheries last, to insulate them against climate shocks and to ensure there is still plenty of fish for future generations.

“EU ministers must take action before it is too late, before we drive this ecosystem to the brink too.”

Negotiations for the Baltic Sea will come to an end this week, and EU fisheries ministers will meet again in December to set the fishing limits for the North-East Atlantic, including for stocks shared between the EU and the UK.

Meeus said: “The EU Council and the UK authorities have a chance to make things right this year and finally set limits in line with science. We will be watching them.”

Meanwhile, a hearing before the Court of Justice of the EU in this case is expected next year.


Notes to editors:

Why is this legal challenge special? What have ClientEarth lawyers done since the legal deadline was breached?

This is the first time ClientEarth lawyers are directly challenging all EU fisheries ministers via the Council thanks new EU access to justice rules.

In March and May 2022, ClientEarth asked the Council to review its decisions setting unsustainable limits in the North-East Atlantic for EU only and EU-UK shared stocks. This is the first step in the ‘internal review’ process which allows NGOs and civil society to challenge EU decisions.

The Council refused to review its decision, prompting lawyers to file a case before the General Court of the European Union – the first chamber of the Court of Justice of the EU.

Before the reform of EU access to justice rules was completed in 2021, lawyers had launched other indirect challenges against the Council for breaching the EU’s legal obligation to end overfishing by 2020.

For example, two years ago, ClientEarth lawyers joined with local NGOs to launch two other cases challenging the national implementation of the 2020 EU fishing limits regulation, in France and in the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Court recently made the ground-breaking move to ask the Court of Justice of the EU to rule on the legality of the EU decision fixing fishing limits for 2020. The French case is still pending.

How far away are we from ending overfishing in the North-East Atlantic?

Despite some progress over the years, EU and UK fisheries ministers have flagrantly missed the legal deadline they set for themselves in the EU Common Fisheries Policy to end overfishing by 2020.

Over 40% of the 2021 fishing limits for the North-East Atlantic still exceeded scientific advice.

Meanwhile, around one third of the 2022 fishing limits for stocks managed by the EU alone or shared between the EU and the UK were set above the scientific advice for sustainable fishing.

For some of these stocks in dire states, like Celtic Sea cod or Irish Sea whiting mostly caught as bycatch, the EU and UK ignored the scientific advice for zero catch. For pollack – fished in the Bay of Biscay and Atlantic Iberian waters –  the limit agreed is almost twice the scientific advice, exceeding it by 950 tonnes (the weight equivalent of about 12 Boeing 737 aircrafts)

The North Sea cod population has dropped by an alarming 80% since 1970. Read our piece to know more about the fate of this iconic ‘fish and chips’ fish.

Why aren’t we working on ending overfishing in the Baltic Sea too?

We’re working to push the EU to end overfishing across Europe. While our legal challenge targets the North-East Atlantic limits, a positive ruling will have a wider impact on all European seas where the EU adopts fishing limits.

What is the link between overfishing and climate change?

A new study shows that EU commercial fisheries can be resilient to climate shocks if they are managed according to sound scientific advice.

Read our explainer to understand how industrial fishing accelerates climate change and what we can do about it.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.