by Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
Fishermen often describe fishing as much more than a job – it's a way of life. And surely a deep love for the sea is a prerequisite when you're getting up long before the crack of dawn. Like farming on land, a fisherman's work at sea is strenuous and demanding: for many, it involves long days of tough physical labour.
Yet fishermen rightly take pride in their work. After all, they are the backbone of a global sector producing 167.2 million tonnes per year (http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5798e.pdf), a critical link in the seafood supply chain. Whether working on industrial trawlers or going out on the family-owned boat, they create value for their families, the communities they live in, and the wider economy. In some European coastal communities, particularly in countries like Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, more than half of the local jobs are in the fishing sector.
The good news for fishermen is that global seafood demand has increased sharply. According to the FAO, the sector is catching nearly five times more fish today than 65 years ago, from 20 million tonnes in 1950 to 93 million tonnes in 2014. But competition is fierce – and the world's seafood resources are not abundant.
Increasing human activities are putting marine habitats under pressure. Systematic overfishing has led to stock depletion and decline. In the Mediterranean, for example, more than 90% of assessed fish stocks are overfished. If this trend continues, the impact for marine ecosystems and fishing communities would be disastrous.
The conclusion is clear: if we want to keep our fishing sector healthy, promoting more sustainable fisheries is the only way to go.
Common Fisheries Policy
That is exactly what the European Union is doing. Our Common Fisheries Policy has one main objective: ensuring sustainable fishing yields for all stocks by 2020 at the latest.
The basic indicator for achieving this target is fishing at maximum sustainable yield (MSY), i.e. catching the maximum amount of fish that allows stocks to stay healthy in the long run. This means listening to scientific advice and setting limits on how much fishermen can catch: through annual Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas or multi-annual management plans.
It also means reducing unwanted catches and eliminating the wasteful practice of discarding smaller or less valuable fish. To this end, we are gradually introducing a landing obligation for European Union waters. Fishermen themselves are developing more selective fishing strategies, gears and other techniques to minimise unwanted catches.
In areas like the North Sea and the North East Atlantic, this strategy is paying off. In others, for example the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the situation is more worrying, and we have recently launched new efforts, in close cooperation with international bodies like the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The outstanding recovery of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean shows that such joint action can be successful – but only if everyone involved takes urgent and decisive steps.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU)
Our emphasis on sustainability at home translates into a strong concern with sustainability abroad. We enforce strict control policies within EU waters and cooperate closely with other countries to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) and overfishing around the world.
Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs), based on sound scientific research, allow EU fishermen to catch fish in partner countries' waters – but only surplus resources that local fishermen cannot themselves absorb.
The EU is also at the forefront of the fight against IUU fishing, which diminishes fish stocks, destroys the marine environment and threatens the economic survival of fishermen who play by the rules. The scale of this problem is massive: IUU fishing is worth up to 10 billion euros a year – 15% of the global seafood market. Commercial and international trade incentives allow us to trigger change towards good governance.
But safeguarding our seas is not enough to satisfy consumers' growing appetite for fish. In addition to healthy wild fisheries, farmed fish from aquaculture is needed to meet demand. By promoting sustainable aquaculture we can strengthen seafood security while creating jobs and local development in many coastal communities.
While global aquaculture is booming, in Europe farmed fish still only accounts for about 20% of fish production. It directly employs some 85 000 "farmers of the sea", mainly in SMEs or micro-enterprises in coastal and rural areas.
We are convinced that there is room for growth. Fish farmed in the EU is renowned for its high quality, sustainability and consumer protection standards. This is the main message of a campaign we have which promotes fish farming in Europe. Our Common Fisheries Policy aims to build on these strengths and unlock the industry’s considerable potential, through targeted financial support that invests in research, supports growth, and creates new jobs for coastal communities.
We are also promoting new forms of aquaculture with high potential for innovation and growth, such as offshore and non-food aquaculture like algae production. Multifunctional aquaculture is an opportunity to diversify the income of aquaculture enterprises through complementary activities such as angling, tourism, environmental services, direct sale or educational activities.
Our Common Fisheries Policy is a response to the uncertainties and challenges facing the fishing industry today, such as reduced catches, rising costs and a marine environment under pressure. Supported by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), it allows the European Union to promote sustainable fisheries and aquaculture to the benefit of coastal communities across the EU.
In addition, it recognises the crucial role that small-scale coastal fleets can play in maintaining employment and holding together the social fabric of coastal communities – as well as their particular economic vulnerability. That is why EMFF gives small-scale fishermen priority and privileged access to funding. They can also receive professional advice on business and marketing strategies, for example to start an activity to generate additional income.
We are confident that with the help of these instruments, European fishermen – big or small – can continue to prosper for generations to come, delivering sustainable jobs, feeding local communities, supplying our markets with delicious and healthy fish, and lessening the impact to the ecosystems they operate.
Above all, however, we should not forget that we can all support sustainable fisheries in our role as consumers: by choosing sustainable fish and seafood that has been caught or farmed without harming wild populations or the environment.