The EU has far too many fishing boats, and major cuts are needed to make fishing sustainable, according to the European Commission.
The commission’s green paper on Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform also says fishermen should be given more responsibility for managing stocks.
A copy obtained by BBC News prior to publication on Wednesday says 30% of EU fish stocks are beyond safe limits.
It says member states “micro-manage” decisions for political reasons.
Despite major reforms in 2002, it concludes, the reality for EU fish and fishermen consists of “overfishing, fleet overcapacity, heavy subsidies, low economic resilience and decline in the volume of fish caught”.
Eighty-eight percent of EU stocks are fished beyond their maximum sustainable yield – the highest catch that can be maintained over an indefinite period – and for some, such as North Sea cod, the vast majority of fish are caught before they have reproduced.
Fishermen would end up richer, the commission concludes, by reducing catches until depleted stocked recover – but the system is set up to ensure short-term profits are the driving factor.
Many aspects of the commission’s analysis agree with the positions that environmental groups have taken down the years.
“Irrespective of any reform, a number of fishing fleets are two-three times the size needed to catch the available fish,” said Uta Bellion, director of the Pew Environment Group’s EU marine programme.
“Only by balancing fleet capacity with fishing opportunity can we secure a CFP that provides long-term socio-economic benefits.”
Across the EU, fleet capacity has come down, the commission says, but only about 2-3% per year. Meanwhile, technological improvements are making boats 2-3% more efficient every year – so the capacity reductions are having little effect.
The commission’s scientifically derived proposals on sustainable catch levels are routinely revised upwards when EU environment ministers meet, traditionally in late December, to set quotas for the year following.
Although fishermens’ groups often blame the commission for quotas they consider too low, the green paper argues that many member states have been guilty of seeking to maintain high quotas on depleted stocks for political reasons.
Falling stocks mean lower catches, and what the document describes as “a vicious circle of overfishing, overcapacity and low economic resilience (resulting in) high political pressure to increase short-term fishing opportunities at the expense of future sustainability of the industry”.
Without naming names, the paper’s wording makes it clear that the commission thinks some countries have a much better track record on this point than others.
The green paper recognises that achieving sustainable catch levels means working with fishermen, encouraging them to develop their own methods of sustainable management and creating incentives that promote a long-term perspective.
One option raised is expanding the use of transferable quotas, where fishermen “own” the right to fish for many years, so gaining from managing the stock sustainably.
SeaFish, the UK’s government-supported industry body, broadly welcomed the green paper.