The UK and other European countries must be forced by law to restock their seas to give the fishing industry a long-term future, the European Fisheries Commissioner demanded yesterday.
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Maria Damanaki told an audience of ministers and environmentalists in London that fish stocks are so depleted there needs to be a legal obligation to improve numbers.
Britain and other nations signed a pledge in Johannesburg in 2002 to restock overfished areas and maintain healthy marine populations by 2015, but many targets look set to be missed.
The deal was non-binding and Ms Damanaki believes that if the targets are to be met, EU countries need to be legally obliged to meet them.
Addressing the Globe World Oceans Day Forum, held at Selfridges department store, she warned that Europe was years behind the US and other major countries in managing its fisheries sustainably.
Rapid and far-reaching reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was needed if the UK and the rest of the EU were to catch up, she added.
The commissioner said: "The US, Australia, New Zealand and Norway are already way ahead of us in adopting modern, sustainable policies that deliver good results for the industry and the oceans.
"Though we import 42 per cent of the global trade in fish, Europe is a big fishing power. We simply cannot afford to be so far behind on sustainability."
Ms Damanaki wants to see stocks allowed to recover and for fishermen to be allowed to catch only sustainable quantities. Fishing quotas are supposed to ensure stocks remain healthy but ministers routinely override scientific advice and set quota levels higher than they ought to.
The commissioner added: "In the EU, too many stocks are overfished and catches are only a fraction of what they used to be in the 90s and are still dipping year after year."
Without action, stocks would continue to fall – and declining catches would cause job losses among fishermen, processors, transport companies and retailers, she warned.
In calling for reform of the CFP, Ms Damanaki wants the UK and other EU countries to be given more control over how their fisheries are run instead of being dictated to by Brussels. Europe's "obese" fishing fleets, she insisted, must be reduced further.
"If we get it right, Europeans will have a more ample choice of fresh fish – wild and farmed fish," she said.
"More fish available to consumers means higher intakes of essential fatty acids, which are necessary for good brain and heart functioning. Brain and heart-related diseases are blowing up our healthcare budgets and in the long run, fish consumption can contribute to reduce the pressure."
The reforms may include halting the practice of discarding fish at sea, demanded by the Fish Fight campaign led by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Ms Damanaki said she would put forward more detailed proposals over the summer.
UK Fisheries minister Richard Benyon said halting the "scandalous" practice of discards would be one of the key elements of a reformed CFP.
He said: "Reform... will not be seen as credible unless we deliver a way to eliminate discarded fish and I will be doing all I can to deliver the ambitious reform that the Government and the public want to see.
"Europe has a hugely important role to play in the global governance of fish stocks, so we must make sure that the CFP pursues the same principles of sustainability and fairness outside its waters too."
Fishing in numbers
72 per cent of Europe's fish stocks are believed to be overexploited, compared with 32 per cent worldwide.
20 per cent of European fisheries are being plundered so intensively the stock could die out.
3 Some parts of Europe's fishing fleet are estimated to be three times the size needed to catch the available quota.
17kg The average person's annual consumption of fish worldwide. In Europe it is 22.2kg.
42 per cent of the world's fish imports were bought by Europe in 2008 – costing £27.8bn.
30 per cent is the cut in the European bluefin tuna quota since 2006, in response to shortages in the Mediterranean.