The recently decided Baltic fishing opportunities for 2019 is great news for fish and fishermen alike. But challenges like overfishing, plastic pollution, global warming, and illegal activities at sea are still present. EU countries have to make sure that the agreed EU policies are duly carried out at home, writes Mr Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
Four years ago, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker asked me to become the European Union’s first-ever double-hatted Commissioner in charge both of the environment and of fisheries and maritime affairs. The logic behind this decision was compelling: oceans cover more than 70% of our planet. If we want to keep our natural environment healthy, we cannot turn our backs on them. Green and blue go hand in hand.
Since then I have made improving the state of the ocean one of my top priorities. And we have seen real progress. In many parts of the EU, for example, fisheries are arguably in the best shape they’ve been in years.
Over the last 6 years, the number of fish stocks for which catches are set at sustainable levels, as defined by the best available science, has increased from 20 to 53 stocks, out of a total of 76.
“Virtually all estimated landings will come from sustainable fisheries”
The Baltic Sea reflects this general trend. In fact, when it comes to sustainable fisheries management, the Baltic Sea has often been a frontrunner and a testbed of innovation. Not only was it the first sea-basin with a multiannual plan for fisheries management in place. It was also among the first to fully implement the landing obligation, putting an end to the unsustainable practice of discarding unwanted fish.
And the success story continues. Earlier this month, EU Fisheries Ministers agreed on next year’s fishing opportunities for the commercially most important fish stocks in the Baltic Sea.
Thanks to this agreement, 7 out of 8 stocks for which complete scientific advice is available will be fished in line with the principle of maximum sustainable yield (MSY). Or put simply, we don’t take more out of the sea than it can reproduce. This means that in 2019 virtually all estimated landings in the Baltic Sea – over 98% – will come from sustainable fisheries. A truly extraordinary achievement.
I am very happy with this result, which is largely in line with – and in some cases even more ambitious than – what the European Commission had proposed. This is great news for fish and fishermen alike. Because our data show that when we fish sustainably, it pays off not just for the environment, but for the economy as well.
Our decisions last week will mean nearly 1 billion euros worth of landings with an average gross profit margin of above 30% - a very healthy level of profitability. And 9 of the top 10 most profitable fleets are going to be small-scale, demonstrating the positive impact that our decisions are having on local coastal communities.
Beyond sustainable fishing
That said, we cannot be complacent. Although many stocks in the Baltic are doing well, overfishing still exists and some stocks still aren’t at healthy levels. And while sustainable fishing is on the rise, fisheries are only one small part of ocean health.
The Baltic ecosystem is fragile. Pollution and the ensuing eutrophication are real causes for concern. EU Member States have agreed to achieve clean, healthy and productive seas in Europe by 2020. This date is practically upon us.
Ambitious European legislation, for example new measures to tackle marine litter and ghost fishing, are in the pipeline. But European rules can only do so much. EU countries have to make sure that the policies that they have voted for in Brussels are duly carried out at home.
For example, just this summer, the European Court of Justice found that Germany had allowed an excessive use of manure as a fertiliser. This breach of EU law has led to nitrate pollution in the Baltic Sea, which already suffers heavily from eutrophication.
Another issue that recently made the news are claims that fishermen are misreporting their catches of salmon as sea trout. We are taking these claims very seriously. In fact, at this month’s Council, Ministers agreed specific measures to fight such fraud. In addition, Baltic Sea countries and the Commission issued a joint statement on curbing salmon poaching, according to which the European Commission could even step in to stop fishing completely, as a measure of last resort.
A collective effort
These measures show the seriousness of our intentions. But they also show that we need to work together. The EU is leading the way to find solutions, also internationally. We want to get a grip on challenges like overfishing, plastic pollution, global warming, and illegal activities at sea. But the oceans are big and concern us all, and we will only succeed if everybody gets on-board – fishermen, scientists and researchers, industry, civil society, local councils, concerned citizens.
My objective is clear: a European fisheries and maritime policy that works for and with everybody. To the benefit of our ocean and all those who live by, from or in the sea.
Karmenu Vella is the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (2014-present). Previous to that he was a member of the Maltese Parliament (for the Labour Party) where he has held several ministerial posts, most recently as minister for Tourism and Aviation (2013-2014).
Photo: Aron Urb (EU2017EE)