The European Commission today warned that nothing short of a completely new fisheries management system would halt years of dangerously depleted stocks and get the struggling fishing industry back on its feet.
A new report effectively admits that years of conservation measures have failed.
The Commission has routinely blamed fishing fleets for overfishing and governments for failing to enforce catch quota limits agreed annually under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Now the Commission is launching a “consultation” on the CFP’s whole future, and insists it will be seeking the views of the fishermen’s leaders and the fishermen themselves as a priority.
But recognition in today’s Green Paper that previous CFP reforms have not done enough to reverse the steep decline in stocks of key white fish species will be seized on by eurosceptics who have long demanded the return of fisheries policy to national control.
EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg, launching a consultation process which will run for the rest of the year, told a press conference in Brussels: “We are questioning even the fundamentals of the current policy.
“We are not just looking for another reform – it is time to design a modern, simple and sustainable system for managing fisheries in the EU, which is able to last well into the 21st century.”
The Green Paper raises an age-old question - how to ensure long-term CFP viability for Europe's fishermen and adapt the existing fleet, already reduced in size in previous reforms - to face the reality of smaller catches "while addressing the social concerns faced by coastal communities".
The document said one of the main problems was the depleted state of main fish stocks – 88% of stocks are overfished in Europe, compared with a world average overfishing level estimated at 25%, and 30% of the EU stock is now “outside safe biological limits” – in other words, fish are being caught too young to ensure normal levels of reproduction.
Despite repeated warnings and recommended catch restrictions, says the Commission, many fishing regions continue to fish two and three times more than limits scientists say must be adhered to in order to allow adequate re-stocking.
The Commission says a “deep-rooted” problem is that the size of the fishing fleet remains too big for the available fish catches – despite years of boat decommissioning plans, and money for the retraining of fishermen to find other jobs.
Brussels also identifies a “lack of political will” to enforce catch limits, and “poor compliance” by the fishing industry itself in sticking to agreed annual catch quotas.
The Commission said it wanted input about what to do next not just from the fishing sector itself, but also from scientists and other “interested parties” who have until December 31 this year to submit their ideas for a radical CFP overhaul by the end of 2012.
Scottish MEP and SNP President Ian Hudghton said it was time to return Europe’s fishing power to nation states.
“I welcome the fact that the Commission has finally acknowledged that the CFP has been an unmitigated disaster,” he said.
“In its quarter-century history, we have seen once proud fishing communities fall into decline whilst key decisions on stock management are taken in late night meetings in Brussels.
“The Commission has stated that no aspect of the CFP should go untouched in the discussions on fisheries reform. I agree and believe that the fiction that centralised control of fishing is a fundamental part of the EU must be shown for what it is.”
Mr Hudghton said historic fishing rights should never have been removed from Europe’s “coastal nations”, and added: “It is now time to reverse that process and return these powers to individual nations working in co-operation on a regional basis.
“A well managed fishing industry should and does have a bright and sustainable future.
“Scotland continues to have some of the best fisheries resources in Europe and the management of those resources should be brought closer to Scotland’s fishing communities.”
Greenpeace EU oceans policy director Saskia Richartz said: “This is the last chance we have to reform a rotten policy and save our seas. Ministers and the Commission are responsible for making European fisheries one of the most unsustainable and least profitable fisheries in the world.
“A seaworthy policy would drastically reduce the number of fish that are being taken from the sea and set up a network of marine reserves.”