Overfishing lurks in flagship EU subsidy scheme

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A meeting of EU agriculture ministers today (18 June) will be almost 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.

In Luxembourg, ministers will also kick-off their first annual consultations on fishing opportunities for 2019, the first step in a process that will decide total allowable catches (TACs) and national fishing quotas for the following year.

Although five EU countries have opposed the compromise text at last week’s preparatory meeting, the Romanian EU presidency is still pushing for an agreement on the EMFF at ministerial level in order to start negotiations with the European Parliament in the Autumn.

France, Spain and Italy, paved the way for today’s showdown when they presented a 10-point joint position during the EU agriculture and fisheries Council in May.

In their declaration, the three largest beneficiaries of the last EMFF asked for an increase in the intensity of public aid, calling for co-financing rates to be raised from the current level of 75% to 80%. They also asked for simplified administrative requirements in order to facilitate the management of the new fund.

The increase in both co-financing and aid intensity rates were opposed by Austria, Denmark and Ireland during previous meetings at ambassador level, EURACTIV has learned.

The European Commission has sided with the sceptics, claiming that a single co-financing rate of 80% is not justified for a sector that has made record profits in the last few years.

“This is not justified and could lead to difficult MFF-related discussions,” said the EU’s Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella, referring to ongoing talks on the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027, the multi-annual financial framework.

Any general approach reached today would indeed be partial, as the EMFF is one of the five European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds and, therefore, depends also on the general agreement that is still being negotiated on the EU’s multi-annual budget.

‘Relaxing’ conditions 

The most controversial aspect of the draft text is the reintroduction of EU support for vessel construction and other investments in fishery capacity.

According to the European Commission, introducing these elements would risk jeopardising fishing conservation efforts undertaken so far.

The EU executive also believes that this kind of subsidies would undermine the achievement of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) targets, namely how much fish of a certain type can be captured without threatening fish populations.

“The proposed EMFF offers better ways of helping young fishermen than buying them a 24-meter vessel,” Vella said at the last Agrifish Council.

Two opposing groups have been formed in the Council, one not fully satisfied with the “relaxing” conditions for fleet measures, the other one calling for lighter conditions for capacity-enhancing investments instead.

The Commission’s main concern is that a compromise text of this kind is clearly in contradiction not only with the EU Common Fisheries Policy but also with international commitments under the Sustainable Development Agenda and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Several environmental NGOs, including Birdlife, ClientEarth, Seas at Risk  and the WWF, are on the warpath and sent a letter to Commissioner Malmström asking the EU Executive to take a stronger stance against the reintroduction of “harmful fisheries subsidies”.

If they are re-introduced, these rules “would in complete contradiction of the EU position in the trade negotiations taking place at the WTO,” they warn.

According to the NGOs, the measures for renewal of the artisanal fleet in the joint declaration of Spain, France and Italy will contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Modern vessels are more effective at fishing than older ones and allowing subsidies for fleet renewal will automatically raise the pressure on marine resources, the environmental NGOs warn.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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