Vella: EU leadership on oceans governance is a priority for my successor

“The oceans are big and the challenges huge, so this is just the beginning," Vella said. [Source: EC - Audiovisual Service]

The EU’s outgoing Fisheries Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, warned that climate change and biodiversity loss were putting the earth’s ecosystems dangerously close to a tipping point, and pleaded for his successor to carry on the International Ocean Governance (IOG) put in place during his five-year mandate.

In an interview with EURACTIV, Vella said young Europeans were voicing strong demands for action on the “planetary emergency” the world is currently faced with.

In the week of the planned hand-over to Virginijus Sinkevičius, the 29-year old Lithuanian appointed to take over his portfolio at the European Commission, Vella pointed to the severe threat hanging over the earth’s ecosystems.

The planet, he said, is coming dangerously close to a number of tipping points, after which corrective action will be either very expensive or ineffective, with potentially devastating consequences for humans.

Climate change and the loss of biodiversity, in particular, are the two most urgent challenges of our time, the Maltese EU Commissioner said. “Both concepts are inextricably linked, mutually reinforcing and they require strong action from the EU,” Vella explained.

According to him, by making a European Green Deal one of her top priorities, the Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has understood the young generations’ call and the urgency to act.

“I am sure that my successor will put his heart into this important mission,” he said, adding that oceans and marine ecosystems play an important part in all major natural processes, including the mitigation of global warming.

Only 29, the Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius will be the youngest Commissioner-ever and will inherit most of the current portfolio of the outgoing Maltese Commissioner.

First ‘millennial’ Commissioner to address challenges for Generation Z

Putting the youngest ever Commissioner-designate in charge of managing the most fearful threats for future generations of Europeans, such as environment protection and oceans’ conservation, is the biggest gamble Ursula von der Leyen took in composing her team.

Concerns were raised in the EU fisheries community after Sinkevičius’ job title was changed to carry the word ‘Oceans’ instead of the time-old  ‘Fisheries’ that was contained in Vella’s portfolio. The move was interpreted as a change of focus to environmental protection instead of fisheries managements.

Von der Leyen was obliged to step back and reintroduce the word after even her own European People’s Party (EPP) opposed the decision to rub ‘Fisheries’ out.

Asked about his views on the matter, Vella sought to downplay the controversy, saying “Mr Sinkevičius’ portfolio wouldn’t have changed due to a change of the name.”

“We should focus on making the CFP work rather than engaging in discussions about the name of the portfolio,” he added.

CFP in the right direction

For Vella, the continuation of the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) remains of utmost importance, and was made clear in the mission letter that Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has given the young Lithuanian.

“The implementation of the CFP has been a priority for me and with good results as positive developments show that we are moving in the right direction,” he said, adding he was confident that his successor will live up to this mission.

When Vella started his term, the CFP had just been reformed with the clear objective of ensuring that fishing activities were environmentally, economically and socially sustainable in the long-term.

“Finding a balance between these three objectives has been a delicate exercise throughout my mandate,” he admitted.

Initial effects of the reformed CFP has seen the EU fishing industry having brought in record-high profits of €1.3 billion for several years now.

“More importantly, we are seeing that the exploitation of stocks managed sustainably improves the economic performance of our fleet,” he said, adding that good news for stocks is also good news for fishermen.

An ‘oceanic’ challenge

The outgoing Commissioner pointed out that the mention of the word Oceans in the new Fisheries Commissioner’s title reflects the move towards a more integrated approach started with the International Ocean Governance (IOG) which he put in place.

“Almost three years into its course, this agenda has proven its value in ensuring concerted and targeted action to promote ocean sustainability and to demonstrate the EU’s global leadership,” he said.

He added that ensuring the EU’s leadership on International Ocean Governance will, therefore, remain a political priority for his successor.

“We are very proud of the achievements we have already had under this agenda. However, the oceans are big and the challenges huge, so this is just the beginning,” he said.

In order to move further and take ocean governance to the next level, the EU needs to strengthen a cross-cutting and integrated approach built on strong partnerships, multilateral dialogue and international cooperation backed by targeted funding, according to Vella.

“The new Arctic Fisheries Agreement is a good example in this sense,” he said.

New treaty bans commercial fishing in the Arctic for 16 years

The European Union and nine other countries, including the US and Russia, approved an international agreement on Thursday (14 February) that will prohibit commercial vessels from fishing in the Arctic in order to preserve the region’s fragile ecosystem.

Baltic quota and EMFF risks

Vella’s last negotiation as Fisheries Commissioner was on the fishing quota limit in the Baltic Sea for 2020, which were trimmed for eight out of ten most commercially important fish stocks in the basin.

However, many NGOs for marine conservation deemed the final deal as not enough ambitious in addressing the plague of overfishing and disregarding scientific advice.

“I would like to mention that there are diverging views between the NGOs,” he said, “and I received a very friendly letter from a network of NGOs which explicitly acknowledged the good Commission proposal and the Council decision as a major step forward.”

“The Council decision was unprecedented and the member states and the Finnish Presidency deserve credit for this by all stakeholders, including the NGOs,” he stressed.

EU Council follows Commission's line, trims Baltic fishing quota

EU ministers have clinched a midnight deal on fishing quota limit in the Baltic Sea for 2020, following the Commission’s proposal to decrease the total allowable catches for eight of the most commercially important fish stocks in the basin.

“Harmful subsidies”

But Vella won’t finalise negotiations over the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) post-2020, the main EU fund that supports fishing communities.

The most controversial aspect of the text under discussion between member states and the European Parliament is the reintroduction of EU support for vessel construction and other investments in fishery capacity.

“I am worried that this kind of harmful subsidies could be introduced in the course of the negotiations,” he pointed out.

For Vella, this would not only go against Europe’s sustainability objectives, it would also contradict the EU’s commitments under UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Overfishing lurks in flagship EU subsidy scheme

A meeting of EU agriculture ministers today (18 June) will be entirely dedicated to fisheries. Ministers are expected to reach a tentative deal on the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) post-2020, the main EU fund that supports fishing communities.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

Subscribe to our newsletters