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Bureaucrats Squabble Over Oceanic Slaughter

Bureaucrats Squabble Over Oceanic Slaughter

Two bodies of European diplomacy have squared off over proposed regulations on the fishing industry. Ministers of The European Parliament have been rebuffed by their legislative counterparts The Council of the European Union, the latter attempting to neuter a newly ratified ban on the practice of fish discards.

An overwhelming majority of Members of the European Parliament (MEP) voted in February to immediately end the dumping of viable catches at sea. National ministers who make up The Council are calling for a staggered implementation of the ban taking place between 2014 and 2017 depending on the species in question, as well as permanently allowing up to 7% of any given catch to be dumped as accidental by-catches.

Dumping perfectly good fish has been the fishing industry’s way around existing quotas on particular species. Ships laden with lower-priced catches routinely toss unwanted breeds to make way for more lucrative catches as they prepare to pull into harbor. Few fish can survive the trauma of being caught, stored and released, resulting in tons of carcasses wasted on the sea floor. Activists and scientists condemn the practice which has contributed to the depletion of fish stocks around the world. More than 1 million tons are discarded by European fleets annually. The European Commission estimates that 23% of all catches are tossed overboard while activists place that figure at closer to 40%.

The Council is pushing for the gradual implementation of the discard ban on cash stocks such as cod and haddock but conservationists worry that delaying action will jeopardize already suffering species.

The ban has been savaged by various levels of bureaucracy for over two years before February’s passage. More than five hundred MEPs backed the ban with less than 140 holding out. The vote also reconfigures the methodology behind setting quotas and establishing scientifically formulated maximum sustainable yields.

Northern European nations generally support the ban while southern states are fighting for looser restrictions. France and Spain in particular are hostile to infringement against their industries. Spain is host to the EU’s largest fishing fleet and receives the lion’s share of EU subsidies.

MEPs are currently holding the 2014-2020 budget for the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) hostage to force The Council to relinquish hopes of diluting the discards ban, drop its call for the 7% permanent dumping allowance and to accept rules for the remediation of endangered fish stocks by 2020. Pressure is alleviated by the fact that if no agreement on the budget is reached by the end of the year temporary budgets will keep the body afloat.

The CFP is a well-intentioned but largely toothless association first devised as a forum for territorial water disputes in lieu of outright warfare. The CFP originally called for a ban on discards in 2008. The organization was also responsible for crafting the now controversial quota system initially based upon member states’ historical catches, not on the ability of fish stock to reproduce. Although recognized as the forum for European fishing practices the group will have little ability to police its implementation. Enforcement of promulgated agreements is left to regional councils—the CFP has no authority to investigate trickery or corruption. Its sole legislative ability beyond closing waters where fishing quotas have been met is to bring proceedings against errant states before the European Court of Justice. In 2005 the court famously fined France €20m for turning a blind eye to undersized hake being brought to port.

Historically member states have been hostile to the CFP’s attempts to shrink fleet sizes, restrict destructive fishing methods and to introduce scientific observation and projections to the system of setting catch quotas. Unregulated shipments of fish continue to enter European ports and find their way to dinner plates across the continent. Unless both European legislators and member states can come to terms little stands in the way of EU waters mirroring the dead zone of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.

Photo by Lionel Flageul for The Common Fisheries Policy.

Background on the Common Fisheries Policy can be downloaded from The European Commission website here.

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