European Parliament reverses course on ambitions for marine conservation

Posted on 18 January 2024

Instead of pushing for sustainable fisheries and the recovery of EU seas as priorities for the next EU mandate, the European Parliament is seeking to water down and slow the transition to low-impact and fair fisheries, as well as implementation of the European Green Deal.
Last February, the European Commission released a package of communications outlining necessary actions to steer the EU’s transition to ecosystem-based, low-impact fisheries. It included an action plan to protect and restore marine ecosystems (i.e. the Marine Action Plan), guidance to minimise the fisheries sector’s carbon and environmental footprints, as well as an assessment of the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Today, the European Parliament adopted its responses to these communications, but instead of giving them political impetus, will stall any meaningful progress towards sustainable fishing and nature recovery by rejecting most of the solutions proposed by the Commission.

This was the last occasion for the Parliament to send a strong message for the ocean ahead of the elections, and push the EU to bridge the gulf between fisheries and nature policies. European marine ecosystems are on the brink, too degraded to effectively fulfil their role as a source of oxygen, food, livelihoods and wellbeing. The next five years will be decisive in reversing this decline. Regrettably, the reports adopted today are insufficient to meet this challenge.

Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at the WWF European Policy Office said, “The European Parliament is hanging fishers and coastal communities out to dry. Addressing decades of destructive fishing practices in parallel to the climate and nature crises requires cross-cutting and forward-thinking policymaking. It’s time for the EU to start working on an overarching ocean deal to set clear, joint objectives and protect the ocean from short-term politics. And there is no better time for this than the forthcoming elections.”

While the report adopted today on the Marine Action Plan echoes the European Commission’s concerns about the poor environmental status of EU seas, it takes a concerning stance on the use of destructive fishing gear, calling for Member State authorities to refrain from prohibiting the use of gear that are dragged along the seafloor within protected areas.

Similarly, the Parliament’s position on the protection of sensitive species falls short of what is needed to reverse the loss of marine fauna. While the Marine Action plan has an entire chapter dedicated to bycatch, the Parliament report includes only a few sentences thanks to last-minute interventions from progressive MEPs.

The Parliament also adopted a comprehensive vision on the future of the CFP in response to the Commission’s communication. This report suggests that the best way to address the EU’s failure to achieve the CFP objectives – such as ending overfishing or minimising the practice of discarding unwanted catches – is to get rid of them altogether. The most striking example is, at a time when overfishing persists across the EU, the Parliament is calling for reconsideration of the “maximum sustainable yield” target (the line in the sand for sustainable catches, beyond which a stock is considered overfished) which should have been achieved for all EU stocks by 2020 under both the CFP and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“At the heart of these blatant inconsistencies is persisting dissonance between EU marine policies and their lack of coherent implementation. Objectives for sustainable fisheries are not mutually exclusive from environmental and social ones, but rather two sides of the same coin”, continued Dr Antonia Leroy. “Players behind the most destructive fishing activities must no longer benefit from lack of alignment in EU policymaking.”

The European Parliament has struck one right note, however: it is time for the EU to establish an overarching legal framework for all blue policies to finally address the incoherence between nature, fisheries and climate laws. WWF is calling for this to be an ambitious and comprehensive Ocean Deal

The next political majority must make sustainable blue policies a top priority of the 2024-2029 mandate. The EU needs a package of proposals, including shared objectives – and therefore a shared trajectory – to bridge the gap between fisheries and maritime policies with the European Green Deal. This would help ensure we finally restore the ocean health that sectors including fisheries, renewable energy, tourism and trade rely on, that helps mitigate the climate crisis, and to which we all have an integral human right.