EU set to miss targets on sustainability after agreeing fishing quotas

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Fish populations will continue to be over-exploited in EU waters, partly as a result of Brexit, after a decision on next year’s fishing quotas among EU countries fell well short of scientific advice.

Fishing limits are set to exceed scientific advice for about a third of EU fish stocks, after EU ministers met on Thursday morning, with EU member states citing the uncertainty regarding fishing rights after Brexit as a reason for breaching limits on sustainable catches.

The Brexit-fuelled dispute among EU ministers on fishing quotas in the north-east Atlantic means the EU target to end overfishing by 2020, set in legislation from 2013, will now be missed.

This year was supposed to be when “total allowable catches” for fish in EU waters were set in line with scientific advice for the first time in the history of the EU common fisheries policy. It was supposed to be when the wasteful practice of throwing back healthy fish to die as discards was ended, and when fishing quotas were to be set through long-term management plans rather than annual bunfights among ministers in Brussels.

Instead, EU ministers voted to roll over at least a quarter of fishing quotas from last year because they were shared with the UK, in defiance of the scientific advice. Annual disputes over fishing quotas will continue after Brexit.

Virginijus Sinkevicius, the EU commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, described this year’s negotiations as “exceptionally challenging” but said progress was being made towards sustainable fishing across the EU.

He said: “We have brought eight total allowable catches in line with the levels that guarantee the maximum sustainable yields from those stocks. EU ministers have followed my proposals on the precautionary approach for nine fish catch quotas. This is a step in the right direction. The commission proposal was very ambitious and I welcome today’s overall good outcome.

“We have also managed to respond to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and secure continued fishing for all EU fishermen and women. Vessels can take to the sea on 1 January 2021 and the fishing sector can be reassured that their business is recognised as a priority for the EU.”

Rebecca Hubbard, a programme director at Our Fish, a campaigning organisation, said: “Brexit has been the excuse by which EU ministers have continued overfishing. It is very bad for sustainable fishing.”

Destructive practices such as bottom trawling will continue, and the management of important fisheries in the North Sea will still be subject to annual negotiations among EU ministers and the UK. Campaigners said these decisions would harm the EU’s fisheries industries and fishing fleets in the long term.

“Unfortunately, today’s outcome shows how far EU member states are from delivering their promises to their citizens, including our children who will inherit the legacy of their decisions,” said Hubbard. “EU fisheries ministers willingly lock themselves into this abusive cycle which helps nobody, not the fish, the ocean, the climate or the fishers.”

Ministers agreed to higher catches than scientific advice recommends for EU-only populations, unaffected by Brexit, such as pollack and sole in the Bay of Biscay.

The EU has also set limits for stocks shared with the UK to allow fishing to continue in the first three months of 2021, with that quota to be distributed among EU member states according to the existing pattern of “relative stability”. Scientists had advised a 17% cut in most catches for 2021.

Campaigners said this flouted the EU’s rules on bringing fishing into line with scientific advice for 2020, but that future years could be better managed.

Andrew Clayton, of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a campaigning group, said: “While smaller in scope than the usual December council decisions due to the uncertainty around shared stocks, the outcome suggests the commission is making some progress to improve management in 2021, but ministers are still opting for several catch limits in excess of scientific advice. When full limits are eventually agreed for stocks shared with UK and Norway, it is critically important that the science on sustainable fishing is followed.”

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