Press release: 27 September 2021

Revealed: The culprits behind unsustainable fishing limits in the EU

ClientEarth has published a series of documents revealing the truth behind the setting of unsustainable fishing limits in the European Union that led to the bloc missing its vital deadline to end unsustainable fishing by 2020.

The files show that some countries like Ireland, France and Spain have consistently pushed for unsustainable fishing limits in the Northeast Atlantic, defying the ambitious sustainability objectives and rules of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy year after year.

Over the years, European fisheries ministers in charge of setting fishing limits – also known as Total Allowable Catches or TACs –  have consistently ignored scientific recommendations and consequently failed to end overfishing by the EU’s 2020 legal deadline.

But the lack of transparency of these “December Council” meetings, which are closed to the public, makes it very difficult to hold individual Member States accountable for decisions leading to overfishing, and to ensure the setting of sustainable TACs.

The directory published today compiles all the “December Council files” relating to Northeast Atlantic fishing limits for 2017 to 2021, including a number of previously unseen documents that cannot be found in the Council’s document register.

ClientEarth’s science and policy advisor for fisheries Jenni Grossmann said:

“We are disclosing these documents to help the public uncover the truth behind unsustainable fishing limits and overfishing in the EU. The Council’s own document register is a maze without a map, unless you know exactly what you are looking for and how it is labelled it’s almost impossible to navigate. This directory seeks to make sense of it all.

“All these documents should have been published at the time of the Fisheries Council negotiations – this is crucial to holding Member States accountable for their decisions and to finally ending overfishing on the water, not just on paper.”

ClientEarth has been working for years to tackle the issue of secrecy around TAC-setting and push decision-makers to proactively publish information in a timely manner. This is crucial to ensure that civil society has a say in these negotiations, which are often heavily influenced by the fishing industry.

To that end, ClientEarth lawyers submitted formal access to documents requests to find out more about Member States’ positions. While most files were eventually disclosed following these requests, the process remains too lengthy and difficult for effective public participation.

Following a ClientEarth complaint, the European Ombudsman called on the Council to increase transparency of its decision-making by publishing documents related to TAC-setting as soon as they are circulated among Member States. However, the Council has failed to accept this recommendation and continues to refuse to proactively publish these files.

As most fishing limits previously set by the Council are now negotiated between the EU and the UK and discussions are about to begin for the 2022 fishing limits, ClientEarth is calling on both parties for more transparency.

Grossmann added:

“Brexit offers both new challenges and opportunities for sustainable fisheries management – and for transparency.

“Upon the UK’s initiative, civil society organisations like ClientEarth were for the first time invited to plenary sessions this year. This is a step in the right direction, but the overall process remains secretive, with very little public documentation. We will watch closely if both the EU and the UK are ready to honour their various sustainability promises and stop hiding behind closed doors.”


Notes to editors:

Our directory contains all files related to ClientEarth’s series of access to information requests (AIRs) and confirmatory applications regarding the setting of fishing limits, or Total Allowable Catches (TACs), by the Council of EU fisheries ministers during the annual December Council process, covering the years 2016-2020. The majority of related files have been published elsewhere already following our AIRs, mostly in the Council’s consilium document register or through the website.

However, some of the relevant documents had so far not been published online, prompting ClientEarth to upload the missing documents into its own document library and putting together this Excel directory of all the files. This file contains key parameters (such as publication date and a summary of the content) for all documents and aims to provide a useful resource for anyone seeking detailed information on the December Council TAC-setting processes from 2016 to 2020.

You can also read more about our analysis and findings in section 5 of our report “Taking stock – are TACs set to achieve MSY?” published in October 2020.

Key findings of this report include the following:

  • Progress since 2015 towards setting TACs in line with scientific advice has been very limited, with more than half of the TACs assessed still exceeding advice for 2019. EU decision-makers have failed to meet the 2020 deadline, and must do better going forward by setting sustainable TACs in line with science and the law.
  • Certain Member States have been more vocal than others in pushing for higher than scientifically advised TACs. Vocal Member States include France, Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Belgium and Denmark, whereas the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden have remained mostly quiet throughout the December Council processes in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Nevertheless, all of these Member States have received shares of TACs exceeding scientific advice, meaning they are all to blame for unsustainable TACs.

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.