Catch 22: Why too many EU vessels still chase too few fish

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.


The reformed Common Fisheries Policy contain the tools to deliver profitable fisheries, thriving fish stocks and lively coastal communities. To combat over-fishing, the EU and member states must act now, demands Jan Isakson.

Jan Isakson is Director of the Fisheries Secretariat, a non-profit organisation working towards sustainable fisheries in Europe and worldwide.

How many times have we heard the complaint, from fishing lobbyists or governments?

“Catch limits can not be set lower because of the socio-economic impacts!”

In plain English: if quotas are set at the levels that scientific advice say are needed for healthy fish stocks, there will not be enough for all the fishermen to make a living.

And so quotas are set higher. And the fish stocks take longer to recover. And the same procedure is repeated the next year.

Back in 2009, a Commission Green Paper identified overcapacity in the fishing fleet as the major problem that needed to be resolved in the coming reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The 2013 reform contained a set of management tools to tackle the problem. Addressing the fleet overcapacity was a key pillar of the reformed CFP. But five years into the reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy overcapacity still undermines the setting of sustainable fishing quotas.

In a new report the Fisheries Secretariat, an NGO based in Sweden working towards sustainable fisheries, takes a closer look at how the tools to reduce fishing overcapacity are working in practice. The short answer is, they are not delivering.

On paper it looks good. Under Article 22, every year, EU Member States are to submit a report to the European Commission where they seek to identify overcapacity. If they find it, they are to submit an action plan. The Commission is to prepare common guidelines with relevant parameters to ensure the reports are useful. The Commission, in turn, is to report on progress to the European Parliament and the Council. The action plans are to be included in the reports. As an extra insurance, the Commission has the right to delay payments from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund if the reports are not presented.

The Fisheries Secretariat used the Baltic sea, and in particular the depleted western Baltic cod as a case study. We looked at national reports, the Commission guidelines and the Commission’s reports to the parliament and the Council. The findings: there are failings at just about every step.

  • The Commission’s guidelines have serious weaknesses. This has been pointed out year after year by the Commission’s own Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries (STECF). But the Commission has done nothing to improve them.


  • Fishing capacity is not reported in relationship to the fish stocks fleets are targeting. Instead, fish stocks and fleets are piled together, it is not even possible to determine in which ocean the vessels fish, which makes the reports close to useless for managers.


  • Some Member States mask overcapacity, rather than identify it. Despite indicator values clearly pointing to overcapacity in key segments, they make an “overall assessment” that there is no overcapacity. Where overcapacity is admitted, it tends to be in the small scale fleet, with small catches of the target fish. While no overcapacity is found in larger vessels catching much more of the same fish. Action plans, where they exist, tend to be vague.


  • The Commission’s reports to the Parliament and the Council do not contain the action plans. They tend to downplay the problems. Key information is not provided. Result: even if they wanted to, it would be difficult for the Parliament and the Council to play their watchdog role.

Another flaw is the measurement of capacity in terms of only engine power and gross tonnage. As the Commission pointed out in its Green Paper, these do not capture the increase in the actual ability to catch fish by incremental technological advances, estimated to be about 2-3 per cent per year.

In our report we provide a set of recommendations for how Commission, Council and Member States could use the existing tools better. For example: The Commission should stiffen up its guidelines for Member States reports so they can no longer mask the problems, e.g. through altering their approach to fleet segmentation to ensure that it reflects the total fishing pressure on a fish stock. The Parliament and Council should take a closer look at the reporting, e.g. the constructive feedback given by STECF and support improvements by the Commission. Member states must present capacity imbalance conclusions in a clear and transparent manner. Further, STECF should be given the task to conduct capacity reports on the regional level, to assess the total capacity targeting threatened stocks.

The reformed CFP contain the tools to deliver profitable fisheries, thriving fish stocks and lively coastal communities. But instead of respecting Article 22 and using the tools as intended, Member States and the Commission are trapped in a vicious catch-22 where setting too high quotas prevents them from achieving the objectives. They need to get serious about identifying and addressing overcapacity. They need to act now.



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