EU must not overlook sustainability as it tackles illegal fishing on the high seas

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A fishing boat at sea

The EU has a chance to end overfishing in the high seas

On November 9, the European Parliament’s fisheries committee will vote on a new piece of legislation intended to regulate fishing operations of European vessels outside EU waters.

For the health of global fish stocks it is important to make sure EU fishing vessels adhere to the sustainability principles of the Common Fisheries Policy outside the waters of EU countries.

The EU is now revising the rules for vessels fishing outside EU waters. This includes EU vessels fishing in the high seas (meaning areas beyond any countries’ jurisdiction), which make up 50% of our planet.

The European Commission released its proposal for these rules in December 2015. It is now being debated in the European Parliament.

If adopted, it will replace an outdated piece of legislation called “the Fishing Authorisation Regulation”, or FAR. It will go much further in combating illegal and damaging fishing practices outside EU waters, including in the high seas.

If the proposal is adopted, EU vessels will need to meet a number of requirements before being authorised to fish. These include: having a valid fishing licence, not having been previously been listed as fishing illegally, and not having been sanctioned for fishing illegally.

The proposal from the European Commission is quite comprehensive in its approach to tackling illegal fishing. What the proposal lacks is a sustainability requirement for fishing operations taking place in the high seas.

A map of territorial waters

The high seas, marked in light blue, make up 50% of the Earth Image credit: B1mbo

Fishing sustainably outside EU waters

As opposed to fishing operations taking place inside EU waters or in the waters of non-EU countries, the conditions to be fulfilled before being authorised to fish in the high seas are only of an administrative and legal nature.

At the moment, whether or not these operations are sustainable is not considered. We previously underlined this gap in our initial briefing on the proposal.

Aggravating this lack of consistency, not all parts of the high seas have Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) in place to make countries cooperate to adopt conservation and management measures for fish stocks. This is the case in some parts of the high seas such as the Central and Southwest Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Northern Indian Ocean. It also happens that, even when RFMOs are in place, they don’t manage all the species found in their jurisdiction.

All this means that many fish stocks in the high seas are unregulated and unmanaged, which can lead to overfishing and damage to the environment.

The Parliament is taking welcome steps to fix this

Some decision-makers are already making efforts to tackle this oversight. The rapporteur for this proposal in the European Parliament, MEP Linnéa Engström, proposed an amendment to the Commission’ proposal:

A Union fishing vessel may not carry out fishing activities on the high seas unless it has been issued with a fishing authorisation by its flag Member State following the presentation of a scientific evaluation demonstrating the sustainability of the planned activities which has been validated by the national scientific institute of the flag Member State”.

Engström rightly points out the need to create a level playing field between the operators fishing in third countries’ waters (the waters of countries which are not members of the EU), where such requirement exists, and those vessels operating in the high seas.

This amendment is also in line with a March 2016 report from the European Parliament on the external dimension of the CFP. In this report, MEPs reiterate that environmental standards must also apply to all EU external fisheries, so as to contribute to the rebuilding and maintenance of fish stocks at sustainable levels.

Engström’s amendment is very timely. At the beginning of September, representatives of States were gathered at the United Nations to discuss the possible adoption of a new international treaty to conserve and sustainably manage marine biodiversity in the high seas.

The EU plays a critical role in these negotiations and has long advocated for better protection and management of these areas. By ensuring that its fishing vessels operate in a sustainable manner in the high seas. it now has the opportunity to translate commitments into concrete actions and demonstrate its leadership on this specific topic.

New fishing rules: what are the next steps?

The next few weeks will be crucial for the proposal, with a vote in the PECH Committee of the European Parliament scheduled for 9 November 2016 and a vote in plenary scheduled for January 2017, which will mean that MEPs will have adopted their final position on this proposed legislation.

During this process, MEPs have once more the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable fisheries by supporting the amendment proposed by Engström. We hope they take this chance and choose to protect the high seas.

Image: Jonas Smith

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