A Sea Change in Fisheries Control Needed

November 4, 2020

The industrialisation of European fisheries post World War II meant that bigger, more powerful boats could go further and fish deeper than had been possible before. Fishing expanded and intensified as if the oceans resources were inexhaustible. Some fishing activities damaged marine habitats, while overfishing depleted target and bycatch species fundamentally altering the balance within marine ecosystems. As too many boats chased too few fish, a race to fish was encouraged by government policies such as subsidies, inflated fishing quotas and lax monitoring and control. The inevitable collapse in fish stocks drove many fishers out of business, especially the smaller traditional fishers who had contributed least to the excesses of the boom and bust.

The situation was reflected by the European Commission who outlined the “current reality of overfishing, fleet overcapacity, heavy subsidises, low economic resilience and decline in the volume of fish caught by European fishermen.” The sobering gravity of the situation eventually drove the reform of the EUs Common Fisheries Policy. Two of the main pillars on which the recovery of fisheries was to be built was the legal commitment to end overfishing by 2020 and end discarding fish at sea by 2019 – the landing obligation. Achieving both milestones would help to rebuild fish stocks and establish a prosperous fishing sector, underpinned by sustainable fisheries management.

The CFP delivered an improvement in the state of some stocks and drove innovation in areas such as the selectivity of fishing gears. These improvements demonstrated that with leadership and buy in from stakeholders – sustainable fisheries management does work and delivers positive environmental and socio-economic benefits. Having said that, the EU has failed nevertheless to meet either the objective to end overfishing for all stocks or ending discarding fish at sea. Both objectives were undermined by a lack of leadership when it came to improving the governance of fisheries.

When managed sustainably, fish stocks are one of the most important renewable natural resources on earth. Fish are a cornerstone in marine ecosystems and contribute to a range of critical ecosystem services that support life on earth.  The consumption and trade in fish has supported the development of human civilisation for millennia. Fish remains a vital source of protein in many economically developing countries, where it is the main or only source of animal protein.

Fisheries are a global commons which people have struggled to exploit throughout history. There is no shortage of international agreements and conventions to ensure good governance and management at a national and international level. The problem has always lied in applying and enforcing them.

While governments play the role of fair arbitrators and enforcers within the global commons, they also openly defend the interests of their national fishing industry. This contradiction and effective lobbying from the fishing industry at a national and EU level against increased regulation has resulted in a lack of ambition when it comes to ensuring that the monitoring and policing of fishing activities across the EU. The lack of control within fisheries alongside the economic incentives to not comply with the law mean that there is widescale non-compliance with the ban on discarding. In the absence of effective control measures, fishers are incentivised to continue discarding to avoid exhausting quota on low‐valued fish which would result in direct economic trade-offs. This may also lead to the early closures of a fishery once a limiting quota is used up, the so‐called “choke” effect.

The European Commission launched an audit series in 2020 to evaluate the measures adopted by a number of Member States – including Ireland – to ensure control, enforcement and inspection of activities relevant to the discards ban and to ensure the full documentation of all fishing trips and relevant data. The preliminary findings of these audits indicate extensive unreported illegal discarding.

This is supported by the European Fisheries Control Agency’s (EFCA) which found that non-compliance was widespread in specific fisheries during recent evaluation periods in the North Sea and North Western Waters. Observer data from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), and last-haul analysis by the EFCA, indicate large discrepancies between what is reported and what is observed. In fact, ICES continue to produce advice based on the assumption that discarding continues.

According to the Commission, these ongoing failures pose a significant risk to the long-term sustainability objectives of the CFP, especially when the capacity of Member States’ fleets and the biological status of certain stocks are taken into consideration. Ireland’s failure to ensure the control and monitoring of the Landing Obligation must also be viewed in the context of broader failings in fisheries control. A recent Commission audit highlighted “severe and significant weaknesses in the Irish control system” including “the lack of effective enforcement and sanctioning of noncompliance.” Separately, the Commission has indicated their intention to take Ireland to the Court of Justice of the EU, unless it addressed the failure to implement a penalty point system for fisheries-related serious infringements. The final deadline for doing so was 1 January 2012.

According to the Commission, conventional controls such as inspections at sea are “ineffective at ensuring control and enforcement of the landing obligation at sea and are limited in promoting a culture of compliance among all operators and fishermen.” The ongoing deficiencies in traditional control measures pose a serious risk to the objectives of the CFP. In its proposal for a revised Fisheries Control System, the Commission has supported the use of the Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) tools, such as closed-circuit television and sensor data, and has called on Member States and the industry to take part in trails of REM tools. The use of REM has already been proven to be superior to conventional controls in terms of its cost‐effectiveness, its potential coverage, and enhanced registration of fishing activity and location.

Poor governance remains a major impediment preventing fishers and broader society from realising the promise of sustainable fisheries and a healthy marine environment. Given that Brexit is likely to further complicate fisheries management and governance, it is all the more pressing that the Irish Government takes steps to support the introduction of a fair control system and novel approaches to deliver a level playing field for all fishers in Irish waters.


Link to BirdWatch Ireland Report: Common Fisheries Policy – A Discarded Opportunity