EU Council meetings – the epitome of fun. These are when representatives of each EU member state, usually the relevant government minister, get together to discuss issues of importance. Last Monday - all day, and into the small hours, it was the turn of the UK’s minister, Richard Benyon to get together with his 26 counterparts to discuss and agree a way forward on Common Fisheries Policy reform.
This was a crucial meeting. We’d heard that they wanted to come to an agreement on a number of essential issues, and the spotlight (largely thanks to that nice Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) was on ministers like Benyon to deliver the key elements that real, radical reform of Europe’s broken fish laws needed.
But a few days after the meeting, it’s taking a while for the dust to settle, and get a clear picture of what has actually happened. Part of the confusion stems from different participants claiming conflicting victories. UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon has hailed the meeting’s success in agreeing a discard ban, whereas his French counterpart appears to be claiming victory for delaying consideration of a discard ban. Hmm...
In this case, the devil is as much in the implementation, as it is in the detail. Agreed dates, targets and deadlines may not be universally understood, and let’s be honest, there’s not actually a great EU track record in hitting deadlines on environmental protection measures anyway.
So here’s the good news: A discard ban is still in the frame. The suggestion is to introduce this in steps, for pelagic species like herring and mackerel by 2014, and for mixed fisheries like cod and haddock a few years later. Thanks largely to the huge amount of pressure by Hugh and his Fish Fight counterparts, this is one issue that the politicians cannot ignore.
More good news: It’s been agreed that the EU will move towards sustainable levels of fishing (Yes, I know, it’s a no-brainer, right? How could you possibly advocate anything else). I don’t want to get jargon-heavy, but this is related to the ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’ (MSY) model, of how big stocks need to be to be viable, and what the optimal rates of fishing / resource extraction are on given levels of stocks. With seven out of ten European fish stocks currently overfished, there’s a long way to go.
Getting to MSY is complicated. The good news is that everyone now seems to agree it should be done, but it’s how, when, and if we get there that’s the problem. What seems to have been agreed by EU ministers is a softly, softly, fish a bit less, solution, hoping to get down to MSY by 2020. Understandably we are a bit sceptical that approach will work.
Lastly we’re quite concerned that the text that has been agreed on the EU’s distant water fishing vessels (boats that travel to places like West Africa and the Indian Ocean, to fish) may be a climb-down, more focussed on protecting Europe’s fishing interests than ensuring they are operating in a way that is both sustainable, and not adversely impacting on local fishing communities.
There is still a long way to go in reforming Europe’s broken fish laws. The fishy baton now passes to our elected MEPs in the European Parliament, who have the ability to strengthen, or weaken, what ministers have agreed. It will then be down to negotiations between the Ministers and Parliament on what is finally agreed.
There is reason for cautious optimism, but also a very real need now to keep the pressure on those representing us in Europe, whether that’s in parliament, or in the smoke-filled Ministerial meeting rooms, to deliver the real reform we want to see.
And we should also be pushing for a fairer deal here at home too. It’s not just about what gets decided in Brussels, as the UK Minister has power to distribute UK quota how he sees fit. It’s a scandal that at the moment that is skewed against the small-scale low-impact sector – to the detriment of local coastal fishing communities.
We all have to keep the pressure up on our politicians to deliver. If we don’t get this reform right, we’ll have to wait another 10 years. That’s another 10 years of overfishing, and not supporting low-impact fishermen … at a terrible cost to our seas and our coasts.