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No time for further delays in meeting 2020 sustainability deadline

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In less than a week, fisheries ministers from across the European Union will head to Brussels to set next year’s catch limits for fish stocks in the Northeast Atlantic and the North Sea.

These ‘total allowable catches’ (TACs) are used in European fisheries management to keep fishing levels within sustainable limits. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) requires that all stocks are fished at or below levels capable of sustaining healthy fish stocks in the long term.

The deadline for achieving this is 2020, making this year’s December Council crucial.

Which member states have been the most vocal in the past? See our analysis below

Ministers agreed to the 2020 deadline when the CFP came into force five years ago. However, they have continued to set catch limits for many stocks above sustainable levels year after year.

A failure at next week’s meeting to set catch limits in line with scientifically advised sustainable limits would jeopardise the recovery of stocks and lead to more painful cuts in 2019.

With only one year left many stocks are still being overexploited. Some of them – such as whiting in the West of Scotland and the Irish Sea, and cod in the Celtic Sea – are in a dismal state far below sustainable biomass levels.

ClientEarth’s analysis of the majority of TAC decisions for the past two December Councils shows that about half of the catch limits for 2018 were still higher than scientifically advised – by 11% across all decisions included in the analysis.

Unfortunately, the decision-making process for setting these limits, including the December Council itself, happens behind closed doors. Crucial information – about member state positions, the arguments and evidence used to support them, and how the agreement was finally reached – is not made public until long after December Council, or not at all.

This has made it far too easy for ministers to set catch limits at unsustainable levels without thorough public scrutiny and makes it difficult to hold them to account. Meaningful participation and transparency in the decision-making process are central to understanding why member states adopt certain positions and how these were reconciled in the end.

Ultimately, the text and numbers coming out of the December Council meeting are jointly agreed by all EU fisheries ministers. This means both the Council as a whole and each individual minister is responsible for ensuring the outcome is in line with the CFP’s requirements and objectives.

What is ClientEarth recommending?

Together with other NGOs, including The Pew Charitable Trusts, Seas At Risk, Oceana, Our Fish and The Fisheries Secretariat, we have sent detailed recommendations to all EU fisheries ministers calling for:

  • The objectives of the CFP to be met
  • The landing obligation to be correctly implemented and complied with
  • The TAC-setting process to be transparent and accountable, with all parts of the decision-making process being documented in a clear and detailed manner.

Here you can read our letter to EU fisheries ministers, our policy briefing and our TAC recommendations.

What have member states been calling for?

ClientEarth’s access to information requests have shed some light on parts of the decision-making process, such as comments made by the different countries before the December Council meetings in 2016 and 2017.

This has shown that several European countries, including Ireland, France and Spain, have repeatedly pushed for higher than scientifically advised catch limits. They usually refer to socio-economic arguments but compelling evidence to support these is often scarce or absent.

Meanwhile, other countries like the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany appear to have been less vocal, in terms of both pushing for higher TACs and pushing against other countries’ attempts to do so.

See below examples from our analysis of member states which pushed successfully for unsustainable catch limits in the last two years:

  • The agreed catch limit for Celtic Sea cod in 2017 was 2380 t, which was almost twice as high as the scientific advice and the Commission’s proposal for 1447 t. France, along with Ireland and Belgium argued for higher limits because of ‘unbearable socio-economic effects’.
  • The limit for pollack in the Bay of Biscay and Atlantic Iberian waters was set at 1995 t for 2017, which was 40% higher than what scientific advice suggested, following France’s request for a roll-over of the 2016 TAC, without any supporting evidence.
  • For 2018 it was agreed that the total catch for Celtic Sea haddock would be 6910 t, exceeding the scientific advised figure by almost 1000 t. This higher limit was agreed after France and Ireland stated that the proposed cut was ‘not acceptable’. Ireland used the same argument when the Council set a higher 2017 limit for Norway lobster in the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and waters southwest of Ireland.
  • The Council’s 2018 limit for herring in the Celtic Sea and southwest of Ireland was set at 10127 t, more than 85% higher than the scientific advice of 5445 t. Ireland pushed for a 30% cut instead of the scientifically advised 62% cut.
  • After Spain pushed for a ‘more moderate quota reduction’, the Council set the limit for megrims in the Cantabrian Sea, Atlantic Iberian waters and the southern Bay of Biscay at 1159 t, a figure exceeding the Commission’s proposal by more than 1000 t.
  • The Council’s TAC for southern hake exceeded the Commission’s proposal and scientific advice both for 2017 and 2018, by 43% and 15%, respectively. Both Spain and Portugal had claimed that the proposed cut was ‘unacceptable’.
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