Photo Gallery: European Fisheries Near Collapse

Foto: J. Steffen/ IFM-GEOMAR

'At the Edge of Collapse' EU Fisheries Reforms Aim for Sustainability

On Wednesday, the European Commission is set to propose reforms to its Common Fisheries Policy, which critics say has led to the systematic devastation of fish stocks in the region. In an interview, expert Rainer Froese says the situation, among the world's worst, will now finally begin to improve.

The state of European fisheries is dismal, according to marine biologist Rainer Froese. For too many years now, a powerful fishing lobby has succeeded in its push for dangerously high catch limits, killing off stocks and ultimately driving up prices for consumers. As catches shrink, the European Union has subsidized struggling fishers in order to keep them in business, the researcher at the respected Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR) at the University of Kiel in northern Germany, says.

The European Commission, the EU's executive, estimates that 75 percent of fish stocks in the region are overexploited, and that 30 to 40 percent of Europe's fishing fleet of 80,000 registered vessels will be financially unsustainable in the longer term. The EU has the world's third-largest fisheries sector after Peru and China.

But the the ecological and economical disaster need not continue, Froese argues. Other countries have successfully reversed the extirpation of their fisheries, and in 2010, the scientist teamed up with lawyers and economists to create a "blueprint" for future European fisheries management based on their models.

On Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to announce reforms to the €615 million ($859.4 million) in annual fisheries subsidies and plans aimed at achieving sustainability by 2015, a draft report obtained by the news agency Reuters showed.

Though regulations will be tougher at first, ultimately fishers are likely to see profits increase, IFM-GEOMAR's Froese predicts.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Froese says that while the expected reforms are a positive step, they still won't go far enough.

SPIEGEL: On Wednesday, the European Commission plans to reveal its reform proposal for the Common Fisheries Policy. Are you hopeful there will be an end to overfishing?

Froese: The EU is proposing stricter catch quotas that are finally oriented towards international standards. That's a step in the right direction. So far policies have kept fish populations deliberately at the edge of collapse, which made no sense economically. Shrinking populations make it increasingly expensive to catch the remaining fish -- which means it only works with subsidies. That's likely how we wiped out the cod population in German waters.

SPIEGEL: But other fish species, such as plaice, seem to be recovering.

Froese: Yes, because their predator and feed competitor cod has been eliminated. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with sustainable management.

SPIEGEL: Will the commercial fishing industry have to settle for smaller catches from now on?

Froese: No. Already after just one or two years the populations will have recovered enough that today's catch volume can be reached once again. In four to five years the fishers can pull out even more. Experience with strict quotas in New Zealand, Australia and the United States shows that everyone profits from sustainable fishing in the end.

SPIEGEL: Why has it taken so long for this idea to reach the EU?

Froese: We let the foxes out in the henhouse. The fishery lobby -- with the complicity of agriculture ministers -- was almost always able to get its way. They went for the highest possible quotas and then chalked them up as successes, at least for the short term.

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