Vella: ‘By 2020, Mediterranean fish stocks should be subject to data collection’

Vella: "There is little doubt that the conservation status of Mediterranean stocks is at peril." [European Commission]

The collection of accurate fish stock data in Mediterranean waters is a necessity for small-scale fishermen’s long-term survival, Karmenu Vella told in an interview. 

Karmenu Vella is the European Commissioner in charge of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos on the occasion of the MedFish4Ever Declaration which was signed in Malta yesterday (30 March) and aims to preserve Mediterranean fish stocks.

Why have the Mediterranean region’s fisheries been unregulated all these years?

The Mediterranean is a unique sea basin in many respects. For its tradition, the size of its coastline and the scale of its fleet.

It has great biodiversity and a fragile marine ecosystem. In terms of managing our fisheries, we have a great number of shared stocks, a large area of international waters outside national jurisdiction, many EU member states on the north coast and non-EU states on the south. The management of the fish stocks has primarily been discussed at the technical level with a number of international organisations (like the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean and ICCAT) that participate in the management of fisheries in the region.

The Mediterranean is characterised by its long coastline and a fishing sector providing jobs for over 300,000 people. 80% of its fleet belongs to small-scale fishermen (with vessels under 10m long), who fish a quarter of the total catches.

Small-scale vessels tend to mix several species and it is very hard to monitor returning to ports every day. These jobs are at risk as fish stocks in the Mediterranean are shrinking: about 90% of assessed stocks are over-exploited. Food security, livelihoods, and regional stability and security are all under threat. It is our task to protect them.

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You presented an initiative here in Malta about the future fisheries in the Mediterranean region. What are the new elements?

Modern times mean modern technologies. The Declaration agreed is based on promoting a strategic long-term approach, based on data and science. It combines global strategic commitments with a grassroots understanding. It is a Mediterranean route to recovery.

To give some examples of what we have agreed today: by 2020, Mediterranean stocks should be subject to adequate data collection and scientifically assessed on a regular basis. In particular, small-scale fishermen will contribute more to data provision. We must establish a multi-annual management plan for all key fisheries.

On its part, the Commission has already initiated this process with its proposal for an Adriatic multi-annual fisheries plan. And we must tackle, with the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, the issue of illegal fishing. Together we will lead the development of national control and sanctioning systems to address this.

How is the cooperation with Northern Africa and the southeastern Mediterranean? Will all the states be involved in your initiative?

To see the face of the Ministers from the southern coast in the room was a huge boost and a strong signal that our strategy is working. The Malta MedFish4Ever Declaration is a proud moment for all involved from all coasts and corners of the Mediterranean. It is a practical example of EU’s successful neighbourhood policy.

Over the last two days, we have seen the strength of the EU working with and for its member states – and working with and for the best interests of its neighbours. It is a turning point for fisheries management in the Mediterranean. Eight member states (Spain, France, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus), seven third countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Albania, Montenegro), the FAO, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, the European Parliament, and the EU Mediterranean Advisory Council came together and committed to action.

Every one of those signatories has an intimate understanding of the everyday realities for the region’s fishermen. They speak to them, know their names and even have family histories steeped in fishing tradition. This is why this is more than a signature that gives political ownership. It is a route to recovery.

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Considering that the EU’s southern fishermen have small-scale activities, how can you ensure their long-term sustainability under the new regime?

First, we need to give small-scale fishermen a greater say in the design, planning and implementation of management measures. Sustainable fisheries cannot succeed if they are not on board. Fishermen need to be part of the solution formula.

This means stepping away from blanket derogations and exceptions, towards tailor-made solutions based on new technologies that can provide better data on the value and economic impact of small-scale fisheries.

Because better data means more and better support and the long-term survival of fishermen. We need to explain to them that providing accurate data is in their best interest – it is a necessity for their survival, not a threat.

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Third, we need to develop capacity-building programmes that can provide support and technical assistance, especially in developing countries.

Fourth, we need to promote a level playing field throughout the Mediterranean – because it’s only fair that all fishermen play by the same rules.

Finally, we need to work to increase employment and raise social standards. For those leaving the business, we need to develop and promote alternative careers. For both women and men in the sector. And we will ensure appropriate financial support under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

The Commission does not have sufficient data regarding the state of rare marine species in the region. Why is this happening? How are you planning to address this?

As I said, the Mediterranean Sea is a biodiversity hotspot. It is host to a huge number of marine species of valuable interest from environmental and socio-economic viewpoints. With this in mind, the Commission has put a lot of effort into improving knowledge when it comes to Mediterranean fish stocks. Since 2007, the number of stocks that are the subject of scientific advice has greatly increased from 31 to 90.

This scientific advice covers around 35% of the total declared landings in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Even though the scientific knowledge about the Mediterranean stocks remains low, there is little doubt that the conservation status of Mediterranean stocks is at peril.

Scientists have made a clear diagnosis: 93% of the fish stocks assessed are in over-exploitation and some of them are close to collapse. This shows the need for management measures to bring exploitation to a sustainable level.

The MedFish4Ever Ministerial Declaration has specific objectives and targets for data collection and scientific evaluation. By 2020, Mediterranean stocks should be subject to adequate data collection and scientifically assessed on a regular basis. In particular, it is small-scale fishermen who will contribute more to data provision.

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