Press release

EU’s top court falls short of applying clear overfishing rules across all EU fish stocks

11 January 2024

  • Court of Justice of the European Union clarifies that EU ministers will be breaking the law if they approve overfishing of ‘target stocks’.
  • However, the Court falls short of applying laws for overfishing to ‘bycatch stocks’.
  • ClientEarth says ruling “provides clarity” but fails to view the ocean as “one living and breathing ecosystem”.

The EU’s top court has ruled today on a case that aimed to bring an end to the “annual scandal” of approving overfishing.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has clarified that EU ministers will be breaking the law if they approve overfishing of target stocks.

However, the CJEU fell short of applying this ruling to bycatch stocks – those that are not targeted by fishers but end up in nets regardless.

The ruling follows a challenge brought at national level by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), supported by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, after the EU missed its 2020 legal deadline to end overfishing. In the deadline year, ministers once again set fishing limits in the North-East Atlantic far above the undisputed scientific advice, triggering legal action by the NGOs.

The case was brought before Ireland’s High Court, which had ‘serious doubts’ about the legality of the EU’s fishing limits, and escalated the proceedings, asking the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to rule on the question.

ClientEarth marine wildlife and habitats lawyer Arthur Meeus said: “Our seas are in a dire state – continuing to exploit them at levels that will eventually leave both fishers and coastal communities without fish to catch and the marine environment in jeopardy cannot go unchallenged.

“Today’s ruling provides clarity – going forward, approving overfishing for target stocks is illegal. However, it’s disappointing that the Court did not follow the Advocate General’s Opinion and has not confirmed that the obligation to end overfishing applies equally to bycatch stocks.”

The CJEU’s ruling jars with the opinion by the court’s top advisor, the Advocate General, who had agreed last year with the points argued in the environmental groups’ legal challenge. Advocate General Ćapeta had called on the CJEU to set a precedent and declare unsustainable fishing limits for all fish stocks “from 2020” invalid.

The CJEU, however, has kept its view of fisheries siloed, considering ‘target stocks’ and ‘bycatch stocks’ separately. Limits are set each year for target stocks (higher-value seafood that fishers intend to catch) and bycatch stocks (those which end up in nets unintentionally).

In its ruling, the CJEU accepts EU ministers should have a level of flexibility when setting limits for fishing bycatch stocks – as the Court states that it is difficult to avoid bycatch.

Meeus said: “It’s disheartening that the Court failed to view the ocean as a whole and to apply the 2020 overfishing deadline across all stocks. The ocean doesn’t think about fish in terms of stocks – making the distinction between them is arbitrary and fails to view the ocean as one living and breathing ecosystem.”

Friends of the Irish Environment Director Tony Lowes said: “We would stand by Advocate Ms. Ćapeta in her Opinion on this case last summer. She wrote that ‘by setting a fixed deadline, the EU legislature aimed at excluding short-term socioeconomic pressures from overriding the achievement of long-term sustainability goals after 2020. The EU legislature dealt with this in a way similar to the ‘no more chocolate from Monday’ promise; because, if Monday is not understood as a fixed deadline, one will keep eating chocolate and Monday will never come.”

Meeus added: “We will be closely following the EU fishing limits that ministers set going forward. We will continue to take action as long as leaders violate ecosystems and their own promises.”


Notes to editors:

EU fisheries management – relevant data

According to the most recent data from the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), an official advisory body of the EU, 26% of assessed Northeast Atlantic stocks are still overfished, and 38% are outside safe biological limits, i.e. are at an increased risk of collapse. This is mostly due to the EU Council’s decisions to disregard urgent scientific advice when setting the annual fishing limits and quotas for EU seas.

In December 2023, EU fishing ministers set annual fishing limits for EU-only stocks, EU-UK shared stocks and EU-UK-Norway shared stocks for 2024 that according to ClientEarth, some of which are once again illegal.

ClientEarth has annually called Ministers out on ignoring the law and science when setting annual fishing limits:

-          In 2018

-          In 2019

2020: EU’s self-imposed legal deadline to end overfishing

-          In 2020

-          In 2021, for EU-only stocks, for EU-UK stocks

-          In 2022, EU-only stocks, for EU-UK stocks

-          In 2023

Legal case – background

In 2020, Friends of the Irish Environment and ClientEarth challenged the EU Council’s decision to set limits for several fish stocks above sustainable levels before the Irish High Court.

Before the 2020 quota-setting, scientists had eyed the precarious state of bycatch stocks including Celtic Sea cod and Irish Sea whiting and advised a ‘zero catch’ limit to try to bring them back from the brink – and preserve a future for the fishers that rely on them and the marine ecosystem they support. But ministers bowed to industry pressure and set limits above scientific advice instead of prioritising long-overdue stock and ecosystem recovery.

In a legal first, the judge asked the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) to judge on the validity of this European regulation setting fishing limits in the North-East Atlantic. Following a hearing in March 2023, the EU’s top advisor for the CJEU, known as the Advocate General, released her opinion on the case in June 2023. The Advocate General backed the environmental groups’ legal challenge by calling on the CJEU to set a precedent and declare unsustainable fishing limits “from 2020” invalid.

Friends of the Irish Environment and ClientEarth were supported in this case by external lawyers Fred Logue, James Devlin and John Kenny.

In 2020, ClientEarth lawyers joined Bloom and Défense des milieux aquatiques to bring a similar case in France against the application of EU Council Regulation setting fishing limits for 2020 in the North-East Atlantic. This case is still pending with no date for the hearing.

In parallel, in October 2022, ClientEarth took all EU fisheries ministers to court for allowing unsustainable fishing limits for EU only and EU-UK shared stocks in the North-East Atlantic.

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.

About Friends of the Irish Environment

Friends of the Irish Environment is a voluntary conservation charity founded in 2000 to create and maintain a network of conservationists and environmentalists in Ireland to ensure the protection of the natural environment and advance environmental justice through monitoring the implementation of, and working for changes in, the development of Irish and European law. Through Climate Case Ireland, its climate wing, the organisation had Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan under the Climate Act 2015 struck down by the Supreme Court in 2020 and is currently engaged in a number of cases from seeking legal aid for NGOs to challenging a proposed major Ring Road in Galway.