Is there something fishy about the EU sea food industry? I

Employment in the European Seafood Industry

According to the Marine Institute, the fishing industry in Europe, excluding the valuable inshore fisheries, processing and aquaculture sectors, employs 141 110 full time workers and has a fishing fleet of 84909 vessels. These amount to a total gross tonnage of 1.8 million and annual landings of a value of €7.7 billion (2011 figures). The overall value of the production sector is around €23 billion, which puts the industry among the top 250 of the Fortune 500 companies, by revenue comparison. In 2009, its turnover lay between those of Coca Cola and Google globally. The EU seafood industry, including the processing industry (which alone employs 120 000 people), and aquaculture sector is the fourth largest in the world, and provides over six million tonnes of fish every year as well as jobs for more than 350 000 people (European Commission, 2012 figures). 

However, of all continents, Europe has experienced the largest decrease in the number of people involved in capture fishing between 2000 and 2010, with a 2 percent average annual decline, and almost no increase in the number of workers employed in fish farming in the same period. In contrast, Africa showed the highest annual increase (5.9 percent) in the number of people engaged in fish farming in the last decade, followed by Asia (4.8 percent), and Latin America and the Caribbean (2.6 percent) (FAO, 2012 figures).


European Fisheries Management

Fisheries are an example of a  common property biological resource - without management and putting in place prohibitive regulations, it is difficult to exclude others from fishing. Moreover, fishing is a subtractive activity whereby one's usage depletes the number of fishing opportunities available to others. First defined by Garrett Hardin in 1968, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ describes the depletion of a common property resource through overexploitation and degradation. Indeed, overfishing has the potential to reduce stocks and threaten both the ecological and economic sustainability of the resource (Niall Farrell, 2012). 

To avoid such a 'European Tragedy of the Commons", fishery management is carried out by the European Commission under the framework of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), with the assistance of Regional Advisory Councils (RACs), including a large variety of stakeholders such as Fisherman, legislators, and members of the scientific community. Each Council presides over a geographical area that comprises at least two Member States: for example, there are the Mediterranean, North Sea and long distance fleet RACs. 

The CFP, for its part, is more than mere stock management -  it is an ecosystem-based approach to the management of all stakeholders including fishermen, stock, legislative controls, markets, financial and environmental issues. A number of EU funded projects have the task of overseeing the application of this approach. For example, MARIFISH, aims to bring together major players in European marine fishery research into working partnerships incorporating the ecosystem approach (MariFish, 2010). The Common Fisheries Policy tries to ensure sustainable fishing practices by setting allowable levels of catch (TAC, Total Allowable Catch), limiting the number of days at sea (fishing effort), restricting the use of certain fishing gear (TCM, Technical Conservation Measures) and reducing overcapacity in the EU fishing fleet (through fleet decommissioning) (Niall Farrell, 2012). 

Not without its issues, local and international perceptions of resource availability and sustainability are at odds, making potential conflict arise. Policies that appear to fishers as not acknowledging their right to be involved in the resource governance may lead to attitudes that are inconsistent with regulatory objectives. National self-interest and undeclared social objectives can be dominant influences in TAC negotiations at European level. The CFP has also led to fishers failing to take into account the risk of over exploitation of the fisheries. Creating a bottom-up community, regional and national approach to fishery management instead of the current European top-bottom approach may be one way to tackle these problems (Niall Farrell, 2012).

At a global level, the signatories to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation agreed to maintain or restore fish stocks to levels that can produce the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY, i.e. the largest catch that can be taken from a species' stock over an indefinite period) by 2015. In the EU, both the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and the review of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) have endorsed the 2015 target agreed in Johannesburg. The MSFD obliges EU member states to prepare and implement national marine strategies, including cross-national targeted programmes within marine (sub-)regions, and to define, by 2012, a comprehensive set of targets and indicators to guide progress towards “good environmental status” (GES) in Europe’s seas. However,  some scientists warn that if fishing pressures on EU waters continue at the same level as early 2009, the EU is bound to fall far short of the commitment for 2015. This warning highlights the urgency of relevant action in the EU. It will necessitate some painful measures, such as a significant short-term reduction, if not removal, of fishing pressure on some of the EU fishing stocks, until they are rebuilt and can once again be fished to their optimum sustainable yield (Szlezak, 2010). The EU is actively trying to reduce the carbon footprint of its food system has enacted legislation to reduce emissions by 20% by 2020 (taking 1990 as the base).

European Fisheries – Declining Stocks

In 2012 Maria Damanaki, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries stated that:

“We have to think long-term. European fishermen face a bleak future without sustainable, healthy stocks. Thanks to long-term management, a number of stocks in the Atlantic waters are already fished at MSY (maximum sustainable yield) levels. But at the same time 47% of stocks are still overfished”

Fearing that they may not be capable of replenishment, the European Commission put it well when it said that there are too many boats chasing too few fish. The number of fishing vessels in the 27 Member States amounted to 83 014 in 2011. That is 23 715 fewer than in 1995 but the fleet still needs to be further reduced (European Commission, 2012).

EU citizens are consuming far more fish than European seas can produce, and are becoming increasingly dependent on seafood from other sources. If the EU were only to consume fish from its own seas, it would run out of fish on July 6th, and be wholly dependent on fish from abroad from July 7th (FEAP, 2013).

The EU, as the world’s largest maritime territory, but at the same time the biggest importer of fish and fishery products, has a particular responsibility for these much needed changes in the sector. Although action by the EU alone will not be sufficient to tackle the challenges at global level, implementing effective policies to reform its own fishing sector and to rebuild its marine fish stocks, it would be able to bring about significant changes.

As a result of the overexploitation of its own marine fish stocks and the consequent decline in catch rates since the early 90s, in parallel with increasing levels of fish consumption per capita in most of its member states, the EU now relies on fish from non-EU sources for almost half its consumption. The issue of the sourcing and consumption of fish is another hotspot in the EU food system, with the overall aim of illustrating the scale of the challenges emerging in the era of globalised food chains (Szlezak, 2010).

Of the EU’s two main maritime territories, the Mediterranean and the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean has maintained an overall stable catch despite a difficult situation in recent years. All hake (Merluccius merluccius) and red mullet (Mullus barbatus) stocks are overexploited, as are probably also the main stocks of sole and most seabreams. The main stocks of small pelagic fish (sardine and anchovy) are assessed as either fully exploited or overexploited. A newly identified threat is the increasing penetration of exotic Red Sea species, which in some cases seem to be replacing native species, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Black Sea, the situation of small pelagic fish (mainly sprat and anchovy) has recovered somewhat from the drastic decline suffered in the 1990s, probably as a consequence of unfavourable oceanographic conditions, but they are still considered fully exploited to overexploited, an assessment shared with turbot, while most other stocks are probably fully exploited. In the Northeast Atlantic, total catch appeared to have a decreasing trend after 1975, with a recovery in the 1990s, and was 8.7 million tonnes in 2010. The blue whiting stock decreased rapidly from the peak of 2.4 million tonnes in 2004 to only 0.6 million tonnes in 2009. Fishing mortality has been reduced in cod, sole and plaice, with recovery plans in place for the major stocks of these species. The Arctic cod spawning stock was particularly large in 2008, having recovered from the low levels observed in the 1960s–1980s. Similarly, the Arctic saithe and haddock stocks have increased to high levels, although stocks elsewhere remain fully exploited or overexploited. The largest sand eel and capelin stocks remain overexploited. Concern remains for redfish and deep-water species for which data are limited and which are likely to be vulnerable to overfishing. Northern shrimp and Norway lobster are generally in good condition, but there are indications that some stocks are being overexploited. Recently, maximum sustainable yield has been adopted as the standard basis for reference points. Overall, 62 percent of assessed stocks are fully exploited, 31 percent overexploited, and 7 percent non-fully exploited.

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According to  Green Peace 2011 data, the European Union governs the largest maritime zone in the world which is also, shamefully, one of the most degraded on the planet. After four decades of EU fishery policies, nine out of ten fish stocks are overfished. Current fishery management fails to protect and preserve both marine biodiversity and the people who depend on it. Despite its many reforms they claim the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has failed to ensure environmentally and economically sustainable fisheries, largely as a result of bad political decision-making that favours  short-term economic interests of the fishing industry over science-based governance and sustainability - both problems highlighted in a reflection paper prepared for the European Commission.

Greenpeace calls on all EU governments to:

reduce their excessive fishing fleet capacity and end destructive and wasteful fishing practices;

increase the area that is protected as marine reserves to 40%;

make scientifically recommended catch levels a minimum requirement;

ensure transparency in decision-making and data-handling as well as traceability for seafood products.