Adopted forty years ago in 1983, the Common Fisheries Policy has aimed to provide supports for European fishers and ensure sustainable exploitation of stocks. It has proven to be a contentious issue, most recently during Brexit. This Just the Facts gives an overview of the key elements in the Common Fisheries Policy and Ireland’s relationship with it.
Before the Common Fisheries Policy
The March 1957 Treaty of Rome made no reference to a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). However, Article 38(1) stated that fishery products were defined as agriculture products to cover their movement around the development of the Common Market.
This absence of a CFP at the time was due to the original Member States catching most of their fish in non-EEC waters, such as off the coast of Ireland. Further, European fishery policy then was defined by the March 1964 London Fisheries Convention. It gave coastal states responsibility for a narrow belt of their own territorial waters. Ireland had adopted this in September 1965.
It stated that a coastal state had exclusive fishing rights up to six nautical miles (nm) from around its coast. From six – twelve nm, fishing rights were given to states who “have habitually fished”. The area beyond this was considered the high seas.
In advance of the first round of accession of countries, who possessed rich fishing grounds, the EU adopted Regulation (EEC) No. 2141/70. Article 2(1) EEC flagged vessels “equal conditions of access” to Member State waters. According to Professor Michael J. Geary, this principle was “designed to eliminate national discriminations, and equalise conditions of competition”.
However, Article 100 of the 1972 Treaty of Accession provided for a derogation of this until 31 December 1982. Until then, Member States could restrict fishing activities within six nm.
At the same time, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which aimed to establish a legal framework for global marine and maritime activities, had been taking place in various rounds since 1956.
During the third round of UNCLOS talks, that began in 1973, the concept of a 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) emerged. When Norway unilaterally announced that it would introduce its own 200nm EEZ from 1 January 1977, the EEC was forced to respond.
In February 1976, the European Commission stated that any such extension by Member States “should be made on a Community basis”. This would create “a Community zone, within which the Community would implement measures for the management of fish stocks”.
By late-1976, Member States had not objected to this principle, as reported in the ‘European Community’. It was decided on 30 October 1976 at the Foreign Affairs Council of the EEC that “member states, acting together, will extend their fishing limits to 200 miles as of January 1, 1977” on the “North Sea and Atlantic coast lines”.
Overnight, fisheries in the EEC moved from being a marginal policy to one that commanded a vast geographical area, requiring a highly technical policy framework ahead of its 31 December 1982 deadline.
After difficult negotiations, the Common Fisheries Policy was agreed forty years ago on 25 January 1983 with Council Regulation (EEC) No 170/83. It set out a framework which today is based around four pillars:
- The management of stocks in EU waters through Total Allowable Catches (TACs), based on ‘relative stability’, a fixed allocation key based on habitual fishing.
- Ensuring market competition and standards are met to protect consumers.
- Funding to assist EU fishing fleet and fishing communities.
- International cooperation with non-EU countries on shared fisheries management.
The Common Fisheries Policy from 1983 – 2023
Article 100 of the Treaty of Accession was deferred first under Article 6(1) of Regulation 170/83 until December 1992, then under Article 6(1) in Council Regulation (EEC) No 3760/92 until December 2002, and again with Article 17(2) in Council Regulation (EC) No 2371/2002 until December 2012. These deferrals have facilitated reviews of the CFP, which aimed to find solutions to aspects of the CFP, however, despite reviews the CFP has struggled to meet its objectives.
Academic literature has described it as being “A study of failure” (2005) “designed for failure” (2010), possessing “an enforcement problem” (2012), with TACs resulting in “overfishing” (2010). The New Economics Foundation found that between 2001 – 2015, TACs exceeded scientific advice between 7% to 33%. While in April 2009 the European Commission found that 88% of stocks in EU waters were overfished.
With this in mind, the European Commission published ambitious proposals, outlined in this communication, for the 2012 review. Due to delays, it fell to Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU from January – June 2013 to complete negotiations. A political agreement was reached on 30 May 2013.
Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 was adopted on 11 December 2013. It introduced a multi-annual ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management; maximum sustainable yield (MSY) became an CFP objective; and it introduced a ban on fish discards. The deferral of Article 100 of the Treaty of Accession was retained under Article 5(2) until 31 December 2022.
The CFP has achieved success in fisheries management, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. In 2021 it found that the percentage of stocks in the North-East Atlantic that were overfished have reduced from 78% in 2007, to 38% in 2018. However, steps are “still needed to turn the tide towards better management”, including in under-implementation, shot term policy thinking, and an “opaque” EU decision-making process.
The Common Fisheries Policy and Ireland
It has been documented historically that European fleets have long fished in the waters around Ireland. There are records in the 1500s of Basque boats fishing off the south-west coast for pilchard. Due to the shallow continental shelf, the Marine Institute states that the fishing grounds around Ireland are “a very productive and biologically diverse marine ecosystem”.
Nonetheless, despite being an island nation, Irish sea fisheries in the first few decades of the Irish state received little investment and direction. This resulted in underdevelopment, with small vessels operating on a small-scale basis, focusing on in-shore fishing.
For example, the first Programme for Economic Development in November 1958 stated: “there are many small piers and harbours, none of which, however, was designed as a modern fishery harbour”.
In terms of Ireland joining the EEC, sea fisheries “caused the greatest strain in relations between Dublin and Brussels” during accession negotiations, according to Professor Michael J. Geary. Political agreement on Regulation 2141/70 and the opening of Ireland’s accession negotiations took place on the same day, 30 June 1970. As the Regulation came into force on 1 February 1971, it became part of the binding acquis communautaire.
Compromise was found at the end of 1971 to proposals that Ireland had initially tabled in June. They related to adopting provisions of the London Fisheries Convention as EEC policy and delaying Article 2(1) of Regulation 2141/70 until 31 December 1982, pending a review.
After joining the EEC, the introduction of ‘relative stability’ with the CFP in January 1983 proved to be another important junction for Ireland and this policy. It resulted in Ireland receiving smaller shares of certain TACs in waters around Ireland, compared to other Member States. However, under the November 1976 Hague Preferences, Ireland does receive an increased share of designated stocks when they fall below a certain level.
From the principle of equal conditions of access, to Ireland’s share of TACs, the Common Fisheries Policy remains divisive for many in the Irish fishing industry, as mentioned here: “the EU has never delivered an equitable share of fishing rights to Ireland”. In January 2023, Euronews published a feature on the state of the Irish fishing industry with interviews from members of the industry in Castletownbere, West Cork.
It references the impact of Brexit, where the industry will lose up to €43 million in the transfer of stocks from Ireland to the UK under the EU – UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. In response, a Seafood Sector Taskforce was established, recommending funding for vessels tied up due to Brexit, with around 180 vessels receiving €10 million.
The Common Fisheries Policy is necessary for the management of fish stocks in the North-East Atlantic in order to deliver real and tangible benefits, both environmental and social, for European coastal communities and our shared marine environments.