Transparency is essential to assess if fisheries control laws are effectively implemented across the EU

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ClientEarth has filed two complaints against the European Commission to the European Ombudsman, asking for information on the implementation of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation. Access to data on this topic is difficult, and this lack of transparency undermines good implementation of fisheries law.

The Control Regulation establishes the rules that fishers and competent authorities of EU Member States have to follow to ensure that the fish caught by EU vessels or in EU waters are legal and have been captured in line with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). It also sets the obligations that EU countries have to respect when enforcing the law, in particular in case of serious infringements to fisheries rules: giving sanctions that are effective, dissuasive and proportionate and also penalty points to the licence holder and to the master of the fishing vessel. Once a certain threshold of points is reached, the fishing licence can be withdrawn and the master can lose their right to command a vessel.

These rules entered into force in 2010, but recent research by ClientEarth shows that Member States have still not fully implemented them. The consequences of this are dramatic, as the proper implementation of the Control Regulation is vital to ensure that violations are effectively sanctioned and that fisheries law is respected by all.

For our research on the implementation of the Control Regulation, we had to make several access to documents requests at EU and national level. In particular, we asked the European Commission to give us access to the implementation reports submitted by the Member States in 2016 and to the list of EU countries under pre-infringements proceedings (EU Pilots) for the non-respect of their obligations under the Control Regulation. We also asked the Commission to publish these Member States’ reports on its website, considering that these reports constitute environmental information that it is required to actively disseminate under the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

Although the Commission agreed to release the implementation reports, it did not give the names of the Member States under an EU Pilot for not meeting their obligations under the Control Regulation, and has so far not published the national implementation reports on its website.

We also requested the release of a Commission assessment of the sanctioning systems of EU Member States. Publishing this document is essential to help civil society organisations understand the real status of the implementation of the Control Regulation, find where loopholes or gaps exist at national level, and work to propose solutions to remedy them. But the Commission has so far refused to release this assessment.

ClientEarth has therefore submitted two complaints to the European Ombudsman, asking (1) that the Commission gives the names of the Member States under an EU Pilot for not complying with the Control Regulation and publishes the national implementation reports on its website and (2) that the Commission gives access to its internal assessment on the sanctioning system of EU countries.

These complaints come after the decision taken last year by Commissioner Vella to fast-track the revision process of the Control Regulation. Indeed, a proposal amending the current rules should be published soon by the Commission and will be discussed by the Council and the European Parliament in the next months. It is expected that this proposal will contain amendments to the enforcement and sanctioning provisions of the regulation.

In light of this political development, it will be extremely important that decision-makers and civil society have access to data on the implementation of the current rules, as this baseline information will be essential to assess what needs to change in the existing system, either through amendments to the Control Regulation or through a better implementation of the rules.

Finally, as the revision process moves forward, decision-makers should also consider the need for increased transparency in fisheries controls, for example by introducing an obligation to publish, at regular intervals, national reports on the implementation of the Control Regulation. At the end of the day, greater transparency regarding how EU environmental law is implemented leads to better enforcement of those laws and, ultimately, to greater environmental protection. We hope the response of the European Ombudsman to our complaints reflects this simple fact.

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