February 6, 2013 5:40 pm

Euro MPs back fisheries shake-up

The EU’s perennially troubled fisheries policy is due for its biggest overhaul in decades after a resounding vote in the European parliament on measures to end overfishing.

The vote drew euphoric reactions from a wide spectrum of constituents seeking to change the widely criticised policy, including environmental groups, conservative MEPs, Brussels policymakers and member states.

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Richard Benyon, the UK fisheries minister, called it a “crucial step forward in securing radical reform” of the common fisheries policy.

Struan Stevenson, a conservative MEP from Scotland – and long-time critic of the system – said the reform would “wrestle control away from the micro-managers in Brussels who have made such an absolute mess of fisheries policy for the past 30 years”.

The package, approved by a margin of 502 to 137, tightened a proposed ban on “discarding”, or throwing fish overboard. The practice has become an egregious emblem of the EU quota system’s dysfunction and unintended consequences.

It also requires fishermen to bring their catches within sustainable limits by 2015 so that stocks will have recovered by 2020. Member states have endorsed a separate plan with weaker language that only obligates them to “aim” for such a goal.

“That is the most important thing,” Markus Knigge, an adviser to the Pew Environment Group. “They have strengthened the ambition to stop overfishing and to begin replenishing fish stocks significantly.”

The reforms would also require member states to eliminate an overcapacity of vessels – a problem long fuelled by EU subsidies – and would hand more autonomy to local fishing bodies.

The EU is the world’s biggest consumer of fish. Yet chronic over-fishing by subsidised fleets means that three-quarters of its stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce, and a third are in perilous condition. The bloc now imports the majority of its fish.

Maria Damanaki, the fisheries commissioner, proposed an overhaul of the common fisheries policy in 2011. In a surprising turn, she managed last year to persuade member states to back an outline of it.

The vote in parliament was seen as pivotal because it will now strengthen the reformists’ hand as all three parties sit down at the negotiating table to hammer out a compromise. The parliament has only enjoyed an equal say over fisheries policy since the Lisbon reform treaty went into effect three years ago.

Ms Damanaki welcomed the vote on Wednesday and looked ahead to those negotiations, saying: “I would like to congratulate the parliament on this success and I am looking forward to the work that the council and the parliament will soon start to ensure the adoption of the reform.”

In Scotland, both conservationists and the fishing industry welcomed the parliament’s approval of a reform. However, Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, cautioned that important details of the long-awaited reform remained unclear and there was still a long way to go to match the parliament’s package with that of Europe’s Council of Ministers.

Since 2009, the parliament and ministers must jointly decide the EU’s fisheries policy under a procedure known as “co-decision”. “We recognise that this is a complicated thing,” Mr Armstrong said.

Helen McLachlan of conservation group WWF UK, said that the 502 to 137 vote was a “ground-breaking” demonstration of the broad desire for change to a fisheries policy seen by conservationists, fishermen and processors alike as too rigid and remote.

“It would be folly for the Council of Ministers not to pay attention to that,” Ms McLachlan said.

Additional reporting by Mure Dickie in Edinburgh

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