EU moves to combat illegal fishing, protect ecosystems

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Fisheries ministers from the 27-member bloc have given their unanimous backing to Commission proposals to combat illegal fishing and protect vulnerable marine ecosystems, in a move welcomed by European environmental groups.

Ministers adopted the regulations on Tuesday (24 June) during a meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, which took place in Luxembourg on 23-24 June. 

A regulation on illegal fishing, which affects EU vessels outside of Community waters as well as foreign boats accessing European oceans, imposes sanctions on offenders proportionate to the value of the landed catch. It permits higher sanctions for repeated lawbreakers. 

Ministers also decided to establish a common certification system with the aim of ensuring that IUU products do not enter the European market. “This is one action to simplify procedures and reduce the administrative burden,” said Slovenian Agriculture Minister and Council chair Iztok Jarc, while EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said the regulation “will ensure we have a single coherent framework for dealing with all EU vessels which operate away from home”. 

Green groups hailed the adoption of the single authorisation mechanism, with Greenpeace’s Saskia Richartz declaring that “today’s decision will help limit destructive fisheries and benefit all those that are sticking to the rules”. 

Meanwhile, the marine protection regulation will only allow fishing in protected areas where there is scientific proof that it does not cause damage to ecosystems, while vessels will require special permits to use bottom fishing gear. 

The measures “will protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in the high seas not covered by regional fishery management organisations,” explained Jarc, as well as regulate “the fishing activities of EU vessels in restricted areas of the high seas”. 

But environmental groups Greenpeace, WWF and Seas at Risk believe the measures do not go far enough, expressing their disappointment that “member states did not agree to freeze the footprint of these damaging fisheries through a depth limit for the deployment of bottom gears”. 

In another development, EU fisheries ministers also backed the Commission’s decision to close the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery two weeks ahead of schedule on 16 June (for more on this issue, please consult our extensive coverage on euractiv.fr). 

Slovenian Agriculture Minister and Council chair Iztok Jarc said he was "highly satisfied that, on top of the Regulation on preventing illegal fishing, we also adopted […] a regulation unifying the rules for obtaining authorisations for the fishing activities of Community fishing vessels outside Community waters and the access of non-EU vessels to European waters". 

EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg said the adoption of the Commission's initiatives "comes not a second too soon" and "gives the EU and its member states new and powerful tools to protect the resources of our seas […] and […] the livelihoods of honest fishers from unfair competition". 

Borg described the adoption of the regulations against pirate fishing and the protection of ecosystems as "important steps towards more sustainable management of our oceans, not just for the EU, but for the international community as a whole," expressing particular satisfaction over the ban on bottom trawling "in unregulated areas wherever fragile marine habitats may exist". 

Uta Bellion, the director of the EU Marine Programme at the Pew Environment Group, said: "We applaud the Slovenian Presidency for having been the driving force behind the agreement. The Council has taken an important step to help redress the balance in favour of those who fish honestly, thereby starting to address the real fisheries crisis." 

In a joint press release, GreenpeaceWWF and Seas at Risk welcomed member states' decision to apply the IUU Regulation to EU and non-EU fisheries because "IUU fishing further aggravates the environmental impacts of over-fishing, inside and outside EU waters". "This industry is netting billions of dollars in black-market revenue, destroying ecosystems and competing with the much-needed income of coastal communities," added Saskia Richartz of Greenpeace

Regarding ministers' failure to establish a depth limit for the deployment of bottom gears, Seas at Risk Executive Director Dr. Monica Verbeek said "a depth limit would have been an extra safeguard for vulnerable marine ecosystems. Now it is crucial that the impact assessments are sound and control effective". 

"While the requirement for prior impact assessments is common procedure in all other industry, it is a novelty in fisheries," Verbeek added, describing ministers' decision as "a significant step" that she wants to see applied to all fisheries. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) claims that "illegal fishing represents up to 30% of total catches in certain major fisheries and […] catches of certain species could in fact amount to three times the authorised volume". 

Measures to "prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing" were submitted by the EU executive for approval by the Council on 29 May 2008. MEPs had voted to back the plans during their Strasbourg plenary on 5 June 2008. They were initially proposed by EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg in October 2007. 

Meanwhile, the regulation on the protection of marine ecosystems represents the transposition into EU legislation of a December 2006 UN resolution on sustainable fisheries. The EU is the largest market for fisheries products in the world. 

The Commission estimates the total value of fisheries products illegally imported into the bloc at over €1.1bn. 

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