Good news is not that frequent in the sea of information threatening to drown us in despair. However, two recent developments in the European Union are notable for the positive promises they carry.
They are not by any means eye-catching headlines but they have the potential to lead to healthier marine ecosystems and fish stocks as well as to make life better for those who derive food and income from fisheries, especially in the coastal communities of developing countries. Our task is to work to encourage all those concerned to deliver on their commitments and obligations.
The first bit of good news came last month in the shape of a European communication setting out “an agenda for the future of our oceans”. In it the EU identifies the urgent need for international cooperation to develop and agree on a global ocean, including fisheries, governance system to respond to the challenges posed by climate change, poverty and ensuring food security, all this with the backdrop to the fast-growing number of human marine activities. The EU believes that it is well placed to play a leading role in taking this governance agenda forward.
The second bit of positive news was even less visible as it resulted from a vote in the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament last Monday. Committee members supported bold steps to make all European fishing outside EU waters more transparent, accountable and sustainable. However, one crucial provision has been omitted, namely to only allow authorisation to vessels with a clean record of compliance, we hope that will be reinstated in plenary.
WWF along with partners have been working with all parties concerned to achieve such an outcome and will continue to ensure that the result of the plenary vote in February and the ensuing trilogues, probably in March, delivers on all their key priorities.
With the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) all EU fisheries inside (internal) or outside (external) EU waters are required to meet the same standards and obligations. MEPs were voting on a proposal by the Commission to tighten the current regulation on the conditions framing European external fisheries so as to better deliver on this CFP obligation. What’s important now is for a majority of MEPs to support their Fisheries Committee colleagues when they vote in the plenary and go further by including the provision that bars those who committed serious infringements from being granted an authorisation.
The EU has a large fishing fleet that is active in all the world’s oceans both on the high seas and in the waters of non-EU coastal and island nations. This is possible under public fisheries agreements negotiated by the EU on behalf of its member states with the authorities of the countries concerned. Where such official agreements don’t exist, vessel owners can conclude private or direct agreements the conditions and details which, under current rules, are unknown.
The Commission proposal also dealt with the conditions applying to non-European vessels fishing in EU waters.
The main measures which the Committee agreed to on Monday are:
- It will no longer be possible for vessel re-flagging in and out of the EU register or “flag hopping” so as to make the most of fishing possibilities wherever they are available or to avoid the constraints of the CFP by registering in countries that do not apply the necessary controls or allows illegal fishing.
- Strict criteria has to be met by those applying for an authorisation to fish abroad under public or private agreements and/or on the high seas before the flag member state is allowed to grant an authorisation.
- Where the member state is failing to meet its obligations by not amending, suspending or withdrawing an authorisation as required for very specific reasons, the Commission will be able to step in to withdraw the said authorisation.
- To help with transparency, all vessels will carry a unique number that remains attached to the vessel from construction to disposal making it impossible to hide their identity behind successive or abusive re-flagging.
- An electronic register will be set up containing information on all fishing authorisations, including the type of authorisations, EU and IMO numbers, details of the fishing company, beneficial owner and fishing opportunities. Part of this register will be public.
- Before entering into a private or direct agreement, a vessel owner will have to provide evidence that the fishing possibilities under the agreement are available so as to be sure their activities will be sustainable. This requirement will also apply to vessels wishing to fish on the high seas.
Once the European Parliament has voted in plenary, it will meet with the Council and the Commission (in trilogues), probably in March, to agree on a final compromise on the measures that will make up the revised regulation on the EU’s external fisheries. This, along with the reformed CFP and the Regulation on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing will represent a solid body of legislation to deliver European external fisheries that meet European, international and Treaty obligations on legal, sustainable and fair fisheries.
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