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The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy


The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is perhaps the single most controversial policy of the European Union in the UK. For many of its critics, it is also the least successful. But is this assessment of the CFP fair and, if there were no CFP, what would the alternatives be? This paper explores the background to the CFP, discusses the problems it has faced, considers the 2002 reforms and their effects and the looks at proposals for a new CFP.


The Treaty of Rome provides the legal basis for the Common Fisheries Policy. Article 3 (d) of the Treaty provides for the "adoption of a common policy in the sphere of agriculture" and Article 38 (1) defines what "agricultural products" means and includes in its definition the "products of the soil, of stockfarming and of fisheries and products of first-stage processing directly related to these products". Fisheries is therefore an exclusive Community competence and was so when Britain negotiated its accession.

Although the Maastricht Treaty amended the Treaty of Rome Article to add "and fisheries" to the mention of a "common policy in the sphere of agriculture" this did not affect the legal basis of the CFP.

The first regulations on fisheries were adopted in 1970 – unhelpfully just before the negotiations for UK (and Norwegian) entry began. They laid down a common structural policy for the fishing industry (the size and number of boats) and regulated the market in fishery products. The development of a fisheries policy reflected the fact that several of the Member States fished in the same waters (i.e. the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the English Channel) and the prospect of Britain, Denmark, Norway and Ireland – all countries with large fishing fleets and fishing grounds – joining the EC. The 1970 regulations established the principle of open access for all EC Member State fishing fleets to fishing grounds except for a small coastal strip which was reserved for fishermen who had historically fished in those waters.

With the accession of Britain, Denmark and Ireland in 1973 – whose fishing catches were more than double those of the existing six members – the policy was modified. A 10-year derogation from the 1970 regulations was adopted in which the coastal waters strip was expanded to six miles, and from six to 12 miles offshore fishing by fishermen from other Member States was only allowed if they had previously enjoyed fishing rights there.

A new version of the Common Fisheries Policy was adopted by consensus in 1983, after seven years of negotiation. It was in large part a consequence of the changes concerning international law. The Third UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allowed countries to declare a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone from their coastlines. Given the potential for conflict between Member States, and the need to protect fish stocks, some sort of joint policy agreed through the EU was needed.

Over this same period major developments in the technology used by the fishing industry began to put fish stocks under increasing pressure world wide. As technology advanced, and trawlers became more powerful and better able to locate and catch fish, the scope for over-fishing increased. The fact that the fishermen risk their lives in pursuit of their livelihood raises the emotional as well as the political stakes.

The absence of agreement about fishing grounds has often led to conflict. Britain and Iceland repeatedly clashed with one another over fishing grounds (the so-called "Cod Wars") from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s; some of those clashes were violent, with shots being fired. Canada and Spain were involved in an aggressive dispute over turbot fishing off the Canadian coast in the 1990s.

The Operation of the CFP

The 1983 regulations were based around the four aspects of the policy:

  • market policy – stabilising and regulating the market whilst taking account of the interests of consumers and fishermen;
  • structural policy – providing the legal basis for Community investment in, and limitation of, the fishing fleets;
  • conservation – measures to allow the EC to protect fish stocks, including specifying the total allowable catches (TACs) for species;
  • renewal of the derogation – a further 10-year renewal of the derogation concerning coastal waters mentioned earlier.

Although there have been changes to some aspects of the policy (see next section) the basic approach remains the same. Scientific advisers to the Commission annually recommend measures to conserve stocks. On this basis, the Commission puts forward TACs for each of the main commercial species; the distribution of these TACs between Member States is decided by a formula based on historic patterns of fishing (and not all Member States have fishing fleets). The Council of Fisheries Ministers (including the British Minister) then meets each December and although strongly advised to agree to the TACs, it routinely increases the TACs, contrary to scientific advice. Over time, this has led to serious over-fishing in many of the key fishing grounds, resulting in a dangerous depletion of fish stocks.

To reinforce the TACs, trawler owners are limited to how many days they can go to sea and for which species. It is common for trawler owners to purchase fishing licences off one another. In the process of trawling and catching fish, many that have been caught are returned to the sea as discarded. They may be the wrong size, of a species that is not wanted or the total catch may exceed the quota.

There were 88,520 fishing vessels in the EU in 2007, just over half of them from Greece, Italy and Spain. The UK’s share was 7.7 per cent. Although the EU is one of the largest fish producers in the world, only about one per cent of employment in EU Member States is in fisheries but this employment is concentrated in coastal communities where other employment opportunities tend to be limited.

The UK fishing fleet, of 6,840 boats, consists mostly of smaller boats (77 per cent under 10 metres) which fish inshore. In terms of employment, the UK sector employs 25,000 people (including those in the processing and other fish-related trades), which makes the UK’s fishing sector only the sixth largest in terms of employment in the EU. The five top catches for UK fishermen in 2007 were: herring, mackerel, blue whiting, Norway lobster and haddock.

Enforcement of the CFP rules is largely in the hands of Member States but, since 2007, the EU has had its own Community Fisheries Control Agency to co-ordinate the inspection activities of Member States.

Reform of the CFP

There have been a series of problems with the Common Fisheries Policy which can be summarised as:

Over-fishing & environmental degradation

In some species, such as cod, over-fishing has resulted in over 90 per cent of the fish being caught before they are mature enough to reproduce. There are similar problems with over-fishing in respect of bluefin tuna and anchovies. As with the Canadian Grand Banks cod crisis, where over-fishing led to the collapse of stocks in the 1990s to such an extent that the entire area off Newfoundland had to be closed to cod fishing, the practice of over-fishing threatens to remove entire species.

The European Commission has suggested that 88 per cent of the EU’s stocks are over-fished compared to 25 per cent worldwide. Scientific advice to close the North Sea cod fishing grounds has been repeatedly ignored by the Council of Ministers. The closure of the North Sea herring fishing grounds from 1977 to 1980 showed that closing fishing grounds can be successful in allowing fish stocks to recover.

There is now growing awareness of the other environmental consequences of over-fishing. The degradation of the wider marine environment has become a significant issue. Marine mammals and entire ecosystems are destroyed by over-fishing. An English Nature study in 2002 found that for every kilogram of sole caught by beam trawlers in the North Sea – a type of fishing vessel that churns up the seabed - up to 14kg of other seabed animals are killed. Oceans are being cleared at twice the rate of forests, according to the UN, and 70 per cent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Consumer pressure has increased the demand for fish from sustainable stocks but it is not clear how effective this will be in changing the fishing industry’s behaviour.


Over-fishing is partly the consequence of over-capacity in the EU fishing fleet. There are simply too many boats chasing too few fish. This has in turn led to the EU funding schemes to reduce capacity which involve taxpayer subsidies to fishermen not to go to sea.


At best, enforcement is uneven. An EU Court of Auditors report in 2007 on enforcement in the six main fishing member States (including the UK) was highly critical, saying that almost all aspects of enforcement were failing. Poor data on catches, inadequate monitoring, such that there was no guarantee that any infringements of the rules were being prevented or detected, and inadequate powers for the Commission to pursue Member States who flouted the rules were amongst the criticisms made.

Politics of fishing

The political clout wielded by fishing communities in a number of Member States is out of all proportion to the economic and social importance of the fishing industry. Member States have consistently failed to stand up to their own fishery industry leaders, for example when setting the TACs, and have sometimes entered into disputes with other Member States with exceptional and unnecessary aggression. The Spanish threat to veto the entry of Austria, Finland and Sweden into the EU unless Spain was admitted to the full CFP immediately was an extreme example of this behaviour. Cross-channel ferries have been disrupted on many occasions by French fishermen blockading channel ports in protests against fishing quotas.

The 1992 & 2002 Reforms

As a result of these difficulties, the EU adopted reforms of the CFP. The first, in 1992, was directed at reducing over-capacity through reducing fleet sizes, introducing licences so that quotas for fishermen could be set and measuring capacity of vessels to catch fish (known as "fishing effort"). But although those measures were difficult and unpopular at the time, they failed to reduce over-fishing.

The Commission brought forward proposals for a longer-term approach to the fishing sector in May 2002 and in December of that year a second set of reforms was agreed by Ministers. The new regulation tried to tackle over-fishing by introducing multi-annual recovery plans to enable stocks of fish to recover and management plans to prevent the stocks of other species becoming so depleted. Fishing fleet sizes were to be controlled by a procedure under which no new vessel could join a national fleet unless one left, and each vessel was to have a licence for its tonnage and its engine power. Two other key measures were the setting up of the new fisheries enforcement agency (see above) and the creation of regional advisory councils, enabling the sector to have greater influence over EU policies.

The new regulation was used to introduce measures to tackle over-fishing, with some recovery in hake stocks in subsequent years but little recovery in cod stocks in several fishing grounds. The length of time it took to obtain agreement on recovery or management plans (in the absence of a deadline in the regulations) meant that progress was slow.

The Commission’s 2009 Green Paper

The publication by the European Commission of a Green Paper in April 2009 was confirmation that the 2002 reforms had largely failed. Despite the policy changes, the Commission said that there was still chronic over-fishing, the policy was expensive for taxpayers, decision-making was short-term, the rules were widely ignored and the industry was not carrying enough responsibility.

The candid nature of the Commission’s admissions impressed some critics. A spokesman for the WWF said that it was an "admirably honest critique of a dysfunctional fisheries policy" but the prospect of drastic cuts in capacity and the closure of fishing grounds to allow stocks to recover will cause serious political as well as economic problems.

The UK Position

The fact that the Common Fisheries Policy was agreed on the day in 1970 that Britain opened its accession negotiations set the tone for the often acrimonious discussions that have followed. A sense that Britain was hard done by over fishing has developed and made worse by the belief that the CFP has been more vigorously enforced in the UK than elsewhere. In fact, the Court of Auditors report found that 90 per cent of infringements in the UK in 2005 were dealt with through warnings and not court action.

The UK has reduced its fishing fleet (by 21 per cent between 1996 and 2006) and the cuts in the white fishing fleet after the 2002 reforms were particularly severe at 60 to 70 per cent of that part of the fleet. The sale of their licences to fish in UK waters by British ship owners to trawlers from other EU countries has caused particular unhappiness in fishing communities.


Is the CFP an example of EU failure? Or is it largely a regional manifestation of a world-wide problem? Or is it due mainly to the failure of Member States to implement an agreed policy? Member States have so far not shown the will either to agree on the policies needed to reduce overcapacity and over-fishing or effectively to implement those that have been agreed. The annual rejection by Fisheries Ministers (including British Ministers) of the scientific advice on what is needed to sustain viable fishery stocks has been disastrous. Over-elaborate regulations have meant high levels of discards and have imposed heavy compliance burdens on the industry without effectively dealing with the problems.

No policy of the EU can ever be implemented without the political will to see it through and in the case of the CFP that has all too often been lacking. In the Common Agricultural Policy, overproduction was – however belatedly – recognised and agreement reached to address it. It has proved far more difficult to attain the same objective in respect of fishing.

That does not mean that the EU would be better off without a CFP. Without some system to regulate fishing, the situation would be even worse. What is needed is a radical change to a system that is simpler, engages the support of the industry and is effective in securing sustainable fishing and marine environment and a viable fishing industry for the EU. The Commission’s Green Paper calls for such a new approach. It is the subject of consultation until the end of 2009, after which the Commission will summarise the debate and make proposals for reform of the CFP. A new basic regulation will be required, which is unlikely to enter into force until 2013.

Although there is widespread recognition that the status quo cannot be allowed to continue, reform will be immensely difficult because of the disproportionate influence of the vested interests involved and the emotional attachment to fishing in several Member States. Decisions must clearly not be left to Fisheries Ministers alone. They will need to take into account the prospect of Icelandic accession. Difficult as it will be, a reformed CFP will need to aim to:

  • reduce overcapacity in the industry;
  • find ways of reducing pressure on stocks and securing sustainable fishing which are more effective than current methods – perhaps on the Norwegian model of strict limits on the number of days at sea;
  • eliminate wasteful discards;
  • reduce the burden of regulation and its costs;
  • integrate fishing management with that of the broader marine environment;
  • encourage the principles of sustainable and responsible fishing internationally, including a culture across the EU in which compliance with the rules is accepted and respected;
  • within the overall rules continue to provide some kind of preference in coastal waters for local fisheries.

July 2009

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