EU council meetings are rarely something that the vast majority of us get excited about. These meetings are when the representatives from each of the EU governments get together, to discuss specific topics. Usually it’s the relevant minister who goes, but they are effectively deputising for their government.
This week it’s the turn of Common Fisheries Policy (CFP, to its friends) reform on the agenda. That’s the once-in-a-decade chance to overhaul Europe’s fish laws.
This matters. Not just to politicians, or fishermen, or environmentalists – but to everyone who eats fish, wants to eat fish, or who cares about our seas.
So, the bad news first. As reported in the Guardian, a bunch of EU member states, led by the vested interests of France and Spain, has made a ‘Declaration on Discards’. On the face of it, this may seem innocuous and reasonable – but it’s the sentiment behind it, and the reality of what it represents that matters. This is basically an attempt to slow down or stop any progress on tackling discards, as a reaction to the proposal for a ban on throwing away perfectly good fish. To you and I, defending discards is, understandably, ridiculous … but that’s where we are.
Sure, stopping discards was never going to be easy, but it simply needs to happen. A ban on discards won’t solve a broken CFP in itself, but it will focus efforts on more selective methods of fishing that don’t catch unwanted species in the first place.
And hopefully, getting an agreement on a discard ban will let us move forward to deal with all the other things we urgently need to fix about Europe’s fishing laws too, such as indefensible subsidies, and the imbalance between fishing sectors.
There is hope for optimism though, in a debate on the CFP in Westminster yesterday, the UK fisheries minister, Richard Benyon reaffirmed a commitment to ending discards and confirmed that the UK was NOT going to sign the French declaration on discards at the council meeting.
And Benyon’s opposite number, Fiona O’ Donnell MP also raised the problematic issue of how we distribute the UK’s fishing quota. In particular she was highlighting the concerns of the low-impact, smaller-scale, inshore fishermen who feel that the biggest challenge they have is simply unfair access to the fishing quotas that are already out there. That’s something we in the UK could, and should, address ourselves.
Clearly, there is still a lot to do domestically, in Europe, and even farther afield.
We are effectively exporting our overfishing addiction to African, Asian and other waters by sending huge, destructive fishing vessels to these distant waters. This has had a devastating impact on local communities, often entirely dependent on fishing for their livelihoods. We’ve estimated that just one of these super-trawlers can catch and process in a day what it would take 56 local pirogues a whole year.
That’s why our ship, the Arctic Sunrise, is in West African waters taking action to highlight the plunder of these seas by the EU and others.
But there’s some hope for some good news from Europe on this. Monday’s council meeting looks set to agree a stronger line on how Europe’s distant water fleets operate. And in no small part that is thanks to the UK’s own fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, who has been a passionate advocate for a responsible approach to West African fisheries.
Real change in Europe’s fish laws needs bold champions, like Benyon. So, for once let’s enjoy applauding a Minister for doing a good job, and encourage him to keep up the good work.
Look out for updates from our team in West Africa, and an update after the Council meeting on how things are progressing in Europe.