| Overfishing is a solvable environmental challenge for the EU|
|From fish and chips after work to smoked salmon at a Christmas party; jellied eels to Stargazy pie: fish is part of our culinary heritage. Overfishing is emptying our seas, ruining once profitable fisheries, and costing us dearly in reduced landings and lost jobs. Crucial decisions to be taken in a few days' time could determine whether or not generations to come will enjoy the dinner-table staples so many of us take for granted.|
Tomorrow, on 18 December, UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon, will join his EU counterparts to agree on the 2013 catch limits for European fish. It is an opportunity for ministers to show resolve and set fishing limits that do not exceed scientific advice. Benyon should prove that he has the best interests of the UK's fishing industry at heart by supporting the restoration of Europe's fish stocks.
Also tomorrow the fisheries committee of the European Parliament will vote on reform of the EU's common fisheries policy. Members of the European parliament have the chance to take a stand on decades of chronic overfishing. MEPs, including the influential senior vice-president of the committee, the Scottish Conservative Struan Stevenson, need to lead the EU out of the wilderness of its failed fisheries policy, and hold firm to member states' 2002 international commitment to restore fish stocks to maximum sustainable yield by 2015. Overfishing is a waste of jobs and money, and if Stevenson wants to support the livelihoods of fishers and coastal communities he will need to support fish stock restoration.
In short, these two decisions by ministers and MEPs will be milestones in determining whether we end overfishing in and by the EU and, if we do, by when. With 62% of fish stocks in the Atlantic and 82% of fish stocks in the Mediterranean currently overfished, and catches in the North Sea down from 3.5m tonnes in 1995 to less than 1.5m in 2007, the situation is certainly challenging. But it is not hopeless; overfishing is the most immediately solvable environmental challenge facing the EU. There is the knowledge, experience, tools and public support to stop it. What is needed is the political courage to end 30 years of fisheries management based on short-term interest.
An example for the EU is the United States, where overfishing was made illegal in 2006 under the Magnuson–Stevens Reauthorisation Act. The ministers and MEPs involved in next week's votes need to show the same level of ambition as their US colleagues by setting limits in accordance with scientific advice and by calling for the restoration of fish stocks. Only this will guarantee the long-term profitability of Europe's fisheries and the future viability of our own fishing communities.
Last year, catch limits set by fisheries ministers exceeded scientific advice on average by 41%. In June, the European Commission issued a communication outlining the state of fish stocks, and has proposed fishing limits for 2013. Its assessment revealed that limits based on restoring fish stocks are already starting to deliver results, most notably in the Atlantic, where the rate of overfishing is going down. Cod stocks in the North Sea seem to be slowly recovering from the brink of collapse.
Ministers must honour their commitment to restore Europe's fisheries by 2015 by making the necessary catch reductions this year. Any claims that doing so is impossible in light of the economic crisis are counterintuitive; we cannot afford not to act, in order to make fishing more profitable in the medium term. A recent study by the New Economics Foundation, Jobs Lost at Sea, shows just how much we are losing – in terms of fish, revenue and jobs – by failing to do so. Restoring 43% of stocks in the north-east Atlantic would generate an additional ˆ3.2bn (£2.6bn) a year (more than three times the current EU fisheries subsidy), and support over 100,000 new jobs, including more than 11,000 in the UK. The value of the catch in the UK and other fishing states would more than double, while prices for consumers would go down.
Benyon, Stevenson and their colleagues need to capitalise on growing public support and seize this historic chance. By voting to finally turn the tide on overfishing they would really give us something to celebrate this Christmas.