Strengthen EU fisheries laws to protect Arctic seas

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The Barents Sea

As industrial fleets move North, the EU needs to ensure environmental protection for the Barents Sea

As climate change melts ice in the Arctic Ocean, industrial fishing fleets are moving northwards, exploiting previously inaccessible areas.

A recent Greenpeace report shows the pristine waters of the Arctic are vulnerable to unsustainable and unregulated fishing. At the moment, there are 48 EU boats operating in an area of the Arctic called the Barents Sea. Greenpeace wants to restrict bottom trawling, as it will be highly damaging to this part of the Arctic Ocean.

The EU is signed up to international agreements to protect marine areas

The EU and its member states are signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which lists seven criteria to determine if an area should be identified as an Ecological or Biologically Significant Area – an EBSA.

They are:

  1. Uniqueness or rarity
  2. Special importance for life history stages of species
  3. Importance for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats
  4. Vulnerability, fragility, sensitivity, or slow recovery
  5. Biological productivity
  6. Biological diversity
  7. Naturalness

If an area meets one or several of these criteria, it can be identified as ecologically or biologically significant. This identification will help to determine where Marine Protected Areas should be established, as the Convention on Biological Diversity requires 10% of all coastal and marine areas to be protected by 2020.

By identifying a number of areas that are globally significant, the right conservation approaches can be chosen. Key to protecting these areas will be the strict application of the precautionary approach, or the systematic use of environmental impact assessments.

Scientists previously categorised the Barents Sea as a super EBSA due to its global significance, yet Norway has chosen not to report the Barents Sea as an ecologically or biologically significant area to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

This is a political decision; Norway wants to deal with the identification of EBSAs nationally, and not at international level. This does not mean that this area of sea should be exposed to damaging fishing. In fact, regulating fishing is vital if we are to protect this pristine area of now vulnerable sea.

How can the EU protect Arctic seas?

Whilst there are laws in place governing how EU vessels must behave outside their own country, these contain loopholes and inconsistencies that need to be addressed if we are to protect rare or fragile ecosystems, such as those around the Arctic.

A precautionary approach must be used to prevent irreparable damage to these areas, which scientists have declared being of global significance. The EU could help.

Currently, EU vessels can go to fish in international waters or in the waters of another country without respecting the environmental rules that govern fishing inside EU waters under the Common Fisheries Policy.

To deal with outdated laws and loopholes, the European Commission released a proposal last December for a new law on the sustainable management of external fishing fleets. The 2013 Common Fisheries Policy includes a legal requirement to limit fishing to sustainable levels by 2020. The new proposal fails to incorporate this key requirement.

Whilst the proposal is generally a big improvement on the current regulation, it does not explicitly say that fishing vessels should respect the sustainability requirements of EU fisheries law before being authorised to fish outside EU waters.

If the new regulation is to protect fragile ecosystems such as the Barents Sea from unsustainable and unregulated fishing, it must ensure that the EU only authorises boats which meet the same environmental standards that protect EU waters from overexploitation.

ClientEarth has written a legal briefing showing how that the current proposal should be strengthened and brought in line with existing EU law. In the upcoming months, we will closely monitor the discussions on this topic and advocate that the EU does its share to ensure that its vessels do not fish in a destructive and unsustainable way outside EU waters.

Image: Chris Parker

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