New EU Fisheries Management Is Helping to Save the Oceans

  • March 20, 2017
  • by John Briley

European Union fisheries

(Tom Koene/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images)

Fishermen plying European Union waters don’t encounter signposts declaring the number of sharks in the sea, the health of deep-sea ecosystems, or the overall state of the fisheries. But thanks to reforms in fisheries management in the EU over the past decade, fishing crews and scientists are seeing welcome signs that the health of the ocean is improving—a trend that should continue if European governments honor their commitments to better manage the marine environment.

For decades, the waters around the EU had been beset by overfishing and careless disregard for critical species and ecosystems—conditions abetted by loose fisheries management as well as government subsidies for the fishing industry.

Recognizing that the status quo was rapidly degrading the EU’s seas, Pew started working there in 2004, pursuing shark conservation along with two other initiatives: one to reform the EU Common Fisheries Policy, which sets species-specific catch limits, and another to win conservation measures for the deep sea, including stopping bottom trawling, which damages sensitive habitats and threatens numerous species.

Pew’s marine policy leaders didn’t expect this to be easy, and an early challenge came in September 2006, when the European Parliament was weighing whether the EU should close loopholes in a ban on shark finning—fishermen’s practice of tossing sharks back into the sea to die after slicing off their fins, which are highly valued in Asia, mainly for soup.

Heavy fishing for sharks in Europe—much of it driven by the fin trade—had greatly depleted many shark species, leaving some near the brink of collapse. Still, in August 2006, the parliament’s Fisheries Committee called for a further weakening of the restrictions on shark finning, and the full parliament appeared ready to follow suit.

But advocates, including Pew’s European staff, held out hope. Earlier that year, Pew had joined other conservation groups in forming a coalition called the Shark Alliance, determined to remind politicians and the public of the vital role that sharks play in keeping the ocean healthy and maintaining balance in the food web.

European Union fisheries

(Ned Drummond/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

The campaign notched a quick—but only partial—victory Sept. 28 when the parliament voted in favor of the restrictions. The move, a rare instance of parliament overturning a committee decision, marked a significant step forward not only for Europe’s sharks, but also for a new coalition that hoped to have real impact in one of the world’s most important markets.

“The EU is one of the world’s top three seafood markets, along with the U.S. and Japan,” says Joshua Reichert, who led Pew’s conservation work for 20 years and now serves as a senior advisor to the CEO. “Back in 2006, we knew if we could make a difference there, it would be a big help to global fisheries.”

Still, six years would pass before the parliament’s call for more restrictions turned into legislation due to the daunting political challenges of working in the European Union: The body consists of 28 sovereign nations, whose citizens are represented by 751 elected members of parliament spread across eight political groups. Other important bodies in Europe include the European Commission, which proposes legislation on behalf of the entire EU, and the European Council, which represents individual member countries, works with the parliament to revise, approve, and reject legislation, and has sole authority to set EU fishing limits.

In this multilayered legislative environment, even initiatives with broad support across the EU can fail when opposed by a small group of countries, known as a blocking minority, in the European Council. And even after a policy passes into law, it may not be implemented and enforced uniformly across the Continent.

“You need stamina to get things done politically in the EU,” says Matthew Gianni, an Amsterdam-based expert on EU fisheries policy who has consulted with Pew. “Too many organizations are looking for two- to three-year wins, but to get major legislation through in Europe, you need to commit to six or eight years or more. You’re basically working on an international treaty process.”

“We knew we couldn’t succeed in Europe on our own,” says Uta Bellion, who has led Pew’s EU marine work since its inception. So Bellion and her Pew colleagues embraced a strategy that included coordinating with other large nongovernmental organizations and enlisting the help of smaller EU member state-based advocacy groups. Funding partners played an important role as well, including Funding FISH, the Lenfest Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Oak Foundation, Sandler Foundation, the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the Tubney Charitable Trust. Forming coalitions with like-minded but diverse groups, Bellion says, enabled Pew to tap a wide range of expertise and to be heard in the capitals. “It made us much stronger at all governance levels, because the size and breadth of the coalitions meant that the EU institutions could not ignore us,” she says.

Pew also focused on working in EU member states to better influence public and political opinions, and on deploying a communications team that could get the message out to a wide audience in multiple languages.

Another critical element of the strategy was following a longtime Pew standard of always basing advocacy positions on the best available science. And what the science said about fishing in Europe was not promising.

Overfishing had left Europe’s waters in sad shape. By 2004, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization deemed fish stocks around Europe to be the most in need of recovery in the world. Artisanal fishers were catching fewer fish than ever before, and industrial fleets were staying afloat largely because of government subsidies, which kept vessels out on the water even if they caught little. The most direct route to ending overfishing was through reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, which Pew started working on in 2007.

That overarching policy sets broad parameters that sometimes require specific legislation to manage certain regions, species, or ecosystems, such as the deep sea. Those waters—deeper than 600 meters (1,968 feet)—are home to corals, many that are thousands of years old, along with fish that mature slowly and are vulnerable to overfishing.

The deep sea was long considered too remote to fish, but advances in technology late in the 20th century allowed vessels to drag weighted nets across its floors, a practice that often wiped out entire communities of corals, sponges, and similar life.

So a decade ago, Pew, which continued to lead the Shark Alliance, began its work to reform the Common Fisheries Policy and launched a campaign to update the EU’s deep-sea fishing rules. These three efforts brought Pew to the fore of the European marine conservation community.

Maria Damanaki, who served as EU commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries from 2010 to 2015, credits Pew with helping to highlight fisheries issues for the European general public, which in turn led people to voice concerns to their political leaders about the marine environment.

Of her efforts to improve both the deep-sea and common fisheries policies during her tenure, Damanaki says: “The health of fisheries could not be seen as an issue only for fishermen and commissioners. We had to engage citizens, [the] consumers who depend on seafood. The issue had to be transformed into a great environmental challenge and a food security issue.”

She notes that, to achieve that goal, Pew helped to organize the first successful European Fish Week in 2010, an event that showcased how the ocean was rapidly degrading from a healthy and diverse ecosystem to a barren future. Pew also led an effort the same year that gathered 25,859 signatures on a petition asking Damanaki to defend the marine environment in the Common Fisheries Policy reform process.

“When I took office in 2010, only five stocks were being fished sustainably” in EU waters, says Damanaki, who is now global managing director for oceans for The Nature Conservancy. “Five years later, that number had risen to almost 30 stocks”—progress she attributes to the creation of a “new culture” around European fisheries.

One example of that cultural shift is the way the conservation community aligned with politicians and others to reform the Common Fisheries Policy, which had been so watered-down by industry influence that many fisheries experts in Europe feared it would never be an effective tool for rebuilding fish populations.

In 2007, Pew began a meticulous review of the policy to identify options for its reform, and in 2009, along with other conservation groups, began forming a coalition that would be called OCEAN2012, named for its focus on reform of the Common Fisheries Policy that was scheduled to be completed by 2012.

Later in 2009, coalition members met with newly elected members of parliament and the commission cabinet to highlight the importance of fisheries reform. Pew also commissioned a study on member states’ use of government subsidies and with coalition members became a resource for fisheries scientists, political influencers, and other conservationists on the environmental problems fueled by those payments. European governments introduced subsidies in 1970 to encourage fishing companies to invest in new technology, but this led to a drastic increase in catch—and an alarming drop in the number of healthy stocks over the ensuing decades.

In 2010, the coalition secured broad support among small-scale fishers for an end to overfishing and launched an internet mapping tool that highlighted both the widespread use of subsidies and the fisheries that were suffering as a result. In 2012, Pew funded production of a short film explaining the issue of overfishing and the role of fisheries subsidies that has been watched by more than 1.5 million people.

Taken together, each piece of this deliberate ground game helped move EU policy, says Chris Davies, a member of the European Parliament at the time of the campaign who pressed for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). “Pew combines passion with serious expertise. [The organization is] a first point of reference for any EU politician wanting to promote a sustainable approach to fishing.”

Years of effort persuaded enough politicians to do just that: In May 2013, negotiators from the commission, parliament, and council struck a deal on legislation to end overfishing in EU waters by 2015 where possible and by 2020 at the latest.

“For the first time [we have] a CFP that recognizes the social, economic, and environmental benefits of supporting small-scale, sustainable fishers and the coastal communities that they serve,” says Jeremy Percy, executive director of the advocacy group LIFE (Low Impact Fishers of Europe). The policy, he adds, “still has a number of flaws” but goes much further than preceding versions toward ending overfishing and the subsidies that have damaged the marine environment.

Although the particulars of each campaign vary, Pew followed a similar script in its efforts to safeguard sharks and the deep sea, building a coalition of like-minded groups and persisting through numerous setbacks before notching critical victories: In December 2012, the European Parliament and Council agreed to finally close the loopholes in the shark finning regulation. And by December 2016, both institutions had ratified conservation measures for the deep sea, phasing out the use of bottom-trawl gear in depths greater than 800 meters (a half-mile) in the northeast Atlantic and protecting vulnerable ecosystems by, in part, requiring environmental impact assessments before fishing could begin in a new area.

But as with any EU legislation, “passing it is not the whole story,” says Andrew Clayton, who leads Pew’s work on implementing the reformed CFP in Northwestern Europe. “We are maintaining pressure on [member state] governments to implement catch limits that will end overfishing, and, crucially, we are making the complex data on fishing levels available and understandable to the public so that people know the extent—or lack—of progress ahead of the 2020 legal deadline to end EU overfishing.”

Today, Pew staff members in London and Brussels are using strategies gleaned from a decade of involvement on the Continent to support numerous global campaigns, including work to end illegal fishing, create large marine parks, protect the high seas, help imperiled tuna populations, conserve sharks, and responsibly manage seabed mining.

If Pew is successful, EU fishermen won’t need signposts to tell them how much their oceans have improved. But they might need help counting all the fish they’ll be catching.