Early on the morning of Wednesday 18 December, EU fishery ministers in Brussels reached a political agreement on the 2020 catch limits for over seventy commercial fishing stocks.
Introduction: Why does this happen?
The EU aims to set EU-wide rules to manage the fishing practise of the EU fleet through the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which was introduced in 1983. Each June, the European Commission for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries publishes a proposal for fishing catches for the following year. It is based on scientific advice such as from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).
Based on this scientific information, a special sitting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of the EU takes place in the week before Christmas. Here, EU fishery ministers, together with the European Commission, must decide how much fish can be caught the following year. Officially called ‘Total Allowable Catches’ (TACs), they are divided into fishing quotas for Member State fleets.
Background: Turning the tide for fish stocks?
However, this process has been highly criticised as it has failed previously to prevent overfishing of stocks. Griffin Carpenter of the New Economics Foundation, found that from 2001–2018, two-thirds of TACs were set above scientific advice. Further, in 2007 the European Court of Auditors gave a highly critical assessment of the TAC control, inspection and sanction systems by Member States.
There was therefore momentum to end overfishing during the review of the CFP, that took place in 2013 under Ireland’s presidency of the Council of the EU. One of the key terms agreed was that TACs would be set to Maximum Sustainable Yields (MSY) by 2020. The aim of MSY is so that the largest catch can be taken from a fish stock, over an indefinite period without harming it.
However, the fishing industry has a difficult relationship with a policy they believe is over-centralised and ineffective as it does not employ a level-playing field across the EU. Additionally, some are sceptical of the methodology behind the scientific advice, with ICES admitting in March that mistakes were made in assessing mackerel stocks. For Ireland, this resulted in a decline of -20% (13,828 tonnes) of mackerel for 2019.
Despite its many critics and criticism, slow progress has been made. According to the European Commission in 2019, 59 stocks were being fished at MSY levels, up from 53 in 2018 and compared to only 5 in 2009.
Results: How did it go this year?
As predictable as the tides, EU fishery ministers negotiated long into the early hours of Wednesday morning, before reaching an agreement shortly after 6a.m. Thirty-two stocks were increased or kept at their current catch limits, while forty others were reduced.
The new European Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius from Lithuania, described it as a “balanced compromise” between environmental, social and economic needs.
However, many environmental organisations were disappointed with the outcome, believing that the 2020 MSY deadline will be missed. Fintan Kelly of Bird Watch Ireland stated that this “is just another example that EU leaders neither comprehend the scale of the existential crisis we face or have any intention of doing anything about it”.
However, Ireland’s Minister for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed said that “I am satisfied that I have achieved my twin aims coming into this Fisheries Council which were to continue the progress we have made on improving sustainability and to protect key fisheries on which our coastal communities depend.”
The total tonnage for Ireland for 2020 is 194,930 tonnes, valued at €275 million. This is an increase of 1,562 tonnes and €3.8 million compared to 2019.
One of Ireland’s key stock, mackerel, received a +41% increase to 78,052 tonnes, valued at €101 million. However, another highly valued stock Norway lobster (Dublin Bay Prawns) saw reductions. It declined by -15% to 6,201 tonnes, translating to a decline of -14% to €53 million.
A full breakdown of all stocks for Ireland for 2020, is available here.
In terms of the industry, the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation stated that the meeting “had delivered a reasonable overall result on certain key stocks, but has upheld misguided proposals on others.”
Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan, Ireland’s only full-member of the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, was disappointed with the agreement. “We all agreed that in 2013 when we reformed the CFP… we did this because otherwise, stocks would continue to collapse, and fishers would be out of a job.”
And what of Brexit?
As outlined by RTÉ’s Tony Connelly, “EU fleets face the potential of being shut out of UK waters at worst, or at best denied the share of fish quotas they currently enjoy.” For Ireland, this would impact some forty-seven stocks. While a future EU – UK trade deal is linked to continued access for the EU fleet to UK waters, this new fishery regime must be agreed before a deadline of 1July.
More information on the CFP, Ireland and Brexit can be found here written by our Policy and Brexit Research Officer Ciarán O’ Driscoll.