The fisheries policy and its loopholes

The crisis in the Baltic Sea fish stocks is one of the most serious environmental problems facing the sea. Cod has collapsed, herring has declined dramatically, and several other important stocks are under threat. How can this happen while a great number of researchers, officials and politicians are busy analyzing, providing data and taking decisions about management plans and annual quotas? The explanation is a focus on short-term profit and a system that has passivated politicians for decades.

Today, Swedish politicians can easily blame the shortcomings of the fisheries policy on EU decisions in Brussels. This is because Member States have transferred the fisheries legislation to the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), where catches and socio-economic considerations have been placed in the center.

The CFP is governed by regulations that take precedence over other regulations, such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora. As a result, authorities and international bodies can state in their reports that fish stocks do not achieve good ecological status, and at the same time, necessary measures are missing due to the fact, that the fisheries policy is overriding environmental and conservation directives.

Catches in focus

A basic problem within the fisheries policy is that the scientific models according to law must be based on that available fish shall be fished. The concept is called Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), and according to MSY, researchers must propose fishing quotas even if the stocks are at high risk of ending up at levels where they cannot recover. Politicians can decide on lower catches than those recommended by MSY, but this rarely happens. The political opposition versus reducing quotas is strong, which was evident when the former Commissioner Karmenu Vella said that he did not want to “kill commercial fishing to save the fish”.

The CFP contains several stages of consultation steps (see image below). However, both in Sweden and Denmark, special interests are taking control of the decision-making process as stated in a report by the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies (Sieps). Commercial fishermen’s organizations are overrepresented, which implies that fishing opportunities, rather than sustainability or the environment, are at center.

Hiding behind the science

As mentioned earlier, the scientific recommendations are based on MSY. When the Council of Ministers decides upon fishing quotas, it is often pointed out that they are in line with the scientific recommendations. But the fact that the EU ministers’ decisions are in line with MSY does not necessarily mean that researchers advocate these quotas or that viable stocks are ensured. Science is used to legitimize decisions, even though the environmental risks are high.

Nationally, the lack of scientific evidence as an excuse for not taking decisions can also be applied, even though available knowledge shows that the fish stocks are at risk. Even though the CFP clearly states that lack of scientific information should not be used as an excuse to postpone or refrain from taking measures, it still happens on a regular basis. One example is the statement from the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management “we do not have sufficient knowledge to conclude that a relocated trawl boundary would benefit coastal herring stocks”.

References to a lack of science are often a curtain of obscurity, as in most cases it is the policy that sets the criteria for the science reporting.

Focus on detail issues

Other reasons can be used to delay measures. When the fisheries management is unable or unwilling to address the real problems of large-scale overfishing, minor symbolic issues have instead been addressed – with reference to policy; Bottom trawling shall be banned, but only in Marine Protected Areas (MPA); The trawling boarder shall be moved further out but only on trial in the Stockholm archipelago. A lot of effort is put into details concerning the fishing gear or adjustments of the fish that can be caught with just a few centimeters. Now we know that none of this saved the Baltic cod, and there is a risk that the management will continue to delay measures that would effectively protect herring.

The problem is not solely which measures to focus on, but also to the implementation of measures. When politicians discussed conservation measures for the dramatically declining cod stock, a ban for fishermen dumping unwanted catch became an important topic. In 2009, EU fisheries ministers made a statement concerning the introduction of a ban of dumping unwanted fish, which was described as a great success. The ban was supposed to be introduced in 2015, but the control measures are still missing.

Talk and action

Eskil Erlandsson was responsible for the fisheries issues after the decision in 2009, and the consecutive five years. Two years after he resigned, he wrote a debate article in which he accused his successor Sven-Erik Bucht of delaying the implementation of the decision. “The plans are ready on how the discard ban could be supported by practical measures such as more efficient fishing gears and better control measures. It is therefore about time for Sven-Erik Bucht (S) to pull the discard ban out of the desk drawer, and talk to his governmental colleagues”, he wrote. 

The handling of the discard ban is an example of how the fisheries policy is often more about “talk”, i.e., statements of principle and debate articles, than “action”, to really implement changes.

After Sven-Erik Bucht resigned as Minister, two more ministers have failed to reverse the development of the Baltic fish species. Perhaps politicians lack the tools they need to lead the fisheries policy in the same way as other policy areas, perhaps they do not have the strength to stand up to the special interests. The question is whether the current Minister Anna-Caren Sätherberg will be the first to break the trend.

Leave no stone unturned

As stocks have declined, fishing and fisheries management have adapted, and smaller and smaller stocks have become the norm. When the species are under pressure, both the catches and the economy of the fishery decrease which is negative for both the environment and commercial fishing. Nevertheless, the focus for the coming years will continue to be as high catches as possible with as little (short-term) negative economic impact on commercial fishing as possible.

In the governmental declaration, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson talked about “leaving no stone unturned”. It is a method that should be used to save the Baltic fish stocks, as passivity and talk did not save the Baltic cod and will hardly save the herring either.

The Minister for Rural Affairs has not yet presented her program for fishing in the Baltic Sea and the Minister for the Environment has not expressed any concern about what is happening. It can perhaps be looked upon as a simpleminded attitude from Sweden and Swedish politicians, that the fisheries policy is a well working system that safeguards the interests of commercial fishermen as well as the Baltic Sea environment and the sustainability of fish stocks. In recent months, the new government has been informed about the development and needs. The question is how they will act.

When politicians want to bring about change in an area, they do not hesitate to use all the tools in the toolbox. Regarding fishing in the Baltic Sea, they do seem to be particularly keen to postpone decisions and await further research and scientific evidence. The truth is that the government can do a lot, both within the current management system, and take actions to improve the system. It is without doubt time to leave no stone unturned when it comes to improving the Baltic Sea environment.