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Commission ambitions to bridge the gulf between fisheries and nature policies fail to make up for lost time

European Commission launches a new package aims to set a pathway to curb destructive fishing practices, restore wildlife, protect marine ecosystems and decarbonise the fisheries sector – but it’s up to Member States to make it happen.

Today, the European Commission published its action plan to protect and restore marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries, its communication on the energy transition of the EU fisheries and aquaculture sector, and its assessment of how the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and EU Common Market Organisation have been implemented since their last reform in 2013.

Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office, said: “These documents come as a package for a reason: there cannot be sustainable fisheries unless we address the impacts of fishing on both marine ecosystems and climate. If the EU is to achieve the targets it itself has set in the CFP and Biodiversity Strategy, Member State inaction and continuation of business as usual must end here.”

On the action plan and communication on the energy transition: After a two year delay, the action plan to protect and restore marine ecosystems calls for Member States to urgently adopt long overdue time-bound, ambitious and concrete measures to deliver an informed, inclusive, fair and just transition towards sustainable and ecosystem-based fisheries management. Such measures are critical to bridge the decades of separation between fisheries and environmental policies that have resulted in depleted fish populations and put the ecosystems upon which fishers depend under enormous pressure [1]. Regrettably, the Commission’s ambition is, at best, a bare minimum to meet the EU’s environmental and fisheries objectives, so Member States must be ambitious in the measures they adopt in response.

As fisheries’ emissions contribute to climate change, due to both fuel emissions and fishing gear that damage carbon-sequestering habitats [2], WWF also welcomes the Commission’s ‘energy transition initiative’ towards carbon-neutral fisheries, in line with the ambitions of the European Green Deal.

Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office, said: “The Commission clearly recognises that EU fisheries management can no longer work in a silo, unaccountable for its preponderant role in the destruction of our seas. With just seven years left to achieve COP15 commitments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, a goal mirrored in the EU Biodiversity Strategy, Member States must now develop ambitious roadmaps to carry out urgently needed change.”
  • Fishing pressure has driven the global decline of shark and ray populations by 71% in the last 50 years [3] and EU imports of shark and ray meat account for over 17% of global transactions since 2000 [4]. While the Commission’s call for the adoption of measures to protect some of the most endangered species by the end of 2024, and all by 2030 is a step in the right direction, WWF calls on the Member States to adopt immediate measures to halt the loss of these species and proactively work to restore their numbers. 
  • On the call to restrict mobile fishing gear that make contact with the seafloor in protected areas by 2030, Member States must not delay taking action and phase out these activities as rapidly as possible, while, as rightly expressed by the Commission, making sure that the fishing effort is not simply displaced to other fishing sectors, that they are not replaced by alternatives that are equally or more destructive, and that a just transition to support fishers in moving away from these kinds of gear minimises any socio-economic difficulties.
  • Six of the seven species of sea turtles are listed as endangered by the IUCN and fishing nets pose the greatest threat to their populations [5]. Despite this, the only concrete measure in the action plan to protect them is one the Commission committed to implement two years ago and would only apply to certain EU waters. As the Commission has stated its readiness to consider legislative steps to ensure effective implementation of the action plan, WWF is calling for an EU ban on seafood imports from key shrimp fisheries associated with especially high levels of incidental turtle catches.
  • Regarding the communication on the energy transition, the key takeaway is that while we must explore and develop new technologies to transition away from fossil fuels, improving energy efficiency through better fisheries management is the first crucial step. To reduce emissions, the EU must move away from the most fuel-intensive fishing gear, which are often also the most destructive [2]. It must also rebuild fish stocks, as more fish means less efforts required to catch them. Both actions would also help restore ecosystems, in turn reinforcing the sector’s resilience to fluctuating energy prices as it transitions away from fossil fuels. 

On the assessment of implementation of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP):
The European Commission is clear: despite progress, the objectives of the CFP are still far from being achieved. Overfishing persists - three years past the legal deadline for it to cease - as do unselective and destructive fishing practices. Little support and few incentives exist for those willing to transition towards sustainable fisheries and European Fisheries Fund have cumbersome procedures that still prevent many small-scale fishers from accessing them.

Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office, said: “Fisheries bear the responsibility of ensuring future generations will have a viable sector in which to find gainful employment and from which to enjoy sustainable seafood products. The CFP provides the rules and structure to make this happen, but is far from being properly used. Now is the time to play by the book, not to change the rules of the game.”
  • WWF welcomes the Commission's focus on the social dimension of the CFP. EU commercial fisheries, particularly small-scale ones, are crucial sources of employment in coastal communities. While the CFP aims to secure a fair standard of living in the fisheries sector, and despite its profitability, data shows that half of EU fishers earn below national minimum wage [6]. To address this, the EU must rebuild stocks and restore marine ecosystems to support a profitable sector, while making sure that profits are fairly distributed. 
  • The landing obligation (article 15), which prohibits fishers from throwing commercial fish back at sea, was a cornerstone measure of the 2013 CFP reform, however, a persisting lack of compliance, worsened by a lack of effective control and enforcement, means unwanted catches are still discarded. Member States and the fisheries sector must urgently adopt more selective fishing measures to prevent unwanted catches from occuring in the first place. 
  • Article 17 requires Member States to distribute fishing opportunities in an objective and transparent manner, based on environmental, social and economic criteria to promote sustainable, low-impact fisheries. However, fishing opportunities are generally being awarded to those who fish the most rather than those fishing the most sustainably. WWF calls for Member States to change this by fairly and transparently distributing fishing opportunities to fishers leading the way towards sustainable, low-impact fisheries.