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Sustainability in the fishing sector cannot be achieved without economic investments. For this reason, from 2014 to 2020, the European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) should have supported the implementation of a sustainable Common Fisheries Policy in all EU countries with an overall amount of € 6.4 billion. With the same aim, the newly created € 6.108 billion European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) is available from 2021 until 2027.
During the EMFF cycle, Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece and Malta invested € 4,244,483,590 in the fishing sector and there will be a similar investment in EMFAF. These are subsidies and therefore are a double-edged sword. So far, although they are aimed at accelerating sustainability, they have done quite the opposite, increasing fishing capacity and causing further deterioration in the condition of the environment and fish stocks in European Mediterranean waters. Given the enduring state of the crisis in Mediterranean fisheries – with 75% of assessed stocks still overfished – it is clear that these funds are not achieving their intended goals. Fishing in the Mediterranean is still largely not sustainable.
WWF questioned the EMFF managing authorities regarding this failure. One of the reasons is that small-scale fishers – the sector that has the highest chances of becoming more sustainable – do not receive the funds simply because they do not apply for them.
How can we fix this paradox?
WWF has been working with small-scale fishers since 2017, engaging them in fisheries co-management schemes that would generate sustainable fisheries. Through a series of interviews with SSF fishers, we understood that lack of information, lack of initial capital (to cover EMFF co-financing), difficulties in obtaining loans from banks, lack of technical assistance to deal with the cumbersome procedures to fill out EMFF applications, are some of the main obstacles keeping SSF fishers away from these funds. The whole EU funding scheme is challenging for small-scale fishers: they have to compile very complicated application forms and, in case of approval, they have to advance all expenses, which will be reimbursed by national EMFF authorities (sometimes with delays) when all activities (for which the EMFF contribution was requested) are completed. Small-scale fishers, unlike industrial fishers, are always required to expose themselves to debt to banks, and they often do not manage to make repayments on time due to frequent bureaucratic delays.
To solve this impasse, WWF and BlueSeeds created a financial mechanism that could advance the initial capital to cover the co-financing requested in the EMFF applications and provide the technical expertise of EMFF experts.
In 2021, making use of the EMFF one-year extension, we launched a call for grants (for projects from €5,000 to €20,000) to support SSF fishers in developing EMFF funds applications for sustainable fishing actions such as gear selectivity, pescatourism, and income diversification.
The call was a success. We obtained grant requests corresponding to four times the available budget. After a careful selection, 37 requests were approved. All disbursed grants generated at least one EMFF application per fisher. With a total contribution of 220,000 euros in grants, combined with 43,382 euros of technical assistance, we generated requests for EMFF funds totaling 2,390,000 euros. Grants were distributed in Italy and Croatia, and 35 out of 37 submitted applications were approved. EU funds will be invested to increase selectivity and reduce discards, to increase safety and energy efficiency on board, and to create alternative income opportunities such as pescatourism or digital markets.
The grants also had a wider impact as the number of EMFF applications by small-scale fishers increased. In Sardinia (Italy), for example, our contribution (63,287 euros in grants and 12,600 euros in technical assistance) resulted in doubling the EMFF applications (100% increase) for initiatives that will improve market access and selectivity. Similarly, in Croatia, thanks to our technical assistance, some fishers who received grants developed two or more applications to improve working conditions and cut carbon emissions by increasing energy efficiency.
These first results show that small-scale fishers have a strong interest in applying for fisheries funds for sustainability, and that they are able to reap the benefits. Therefore, if national EMFAF managing authorities and fisheries associations increased their efforts and investments towards SSF fishers, we would see EU fisheries funds generating a real shift to sustainability in fisheries.
In 2023, BlueSeeds and WWF plan to create a permanent pre-financing facility to continue increasing the number of SSF fishers applying to the newly available EMFAF.
We believe that only a conspicuous allocation of funds toward fishing activities that have a low impact on the environment will give us a fighting chance to rebuild fish stocks in the Mediterranean.