Critically depleted European fish stocks will be returned to a sustainable level, MEPs have promised as they voted through the most radical reforms to fishing policy in the history of the EU.
The reforms, which could come into effect as early as 2015, include measures to protect endangered stocks and a ban on “discards”, the controversial practice of throwing unwanted dead fish back into the sea.
There were jubilant scenes at the European Parliament in Strasbourg as MEPs passed the reform vote by 502 votes to 137. Members of the Green group held up banners showing fish saying “thank you”, as delegates celebrated the end of years of wrangling over the notoriously divisive EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has led the calls for reform in Britain, praised the MEPs for backing a “strong discards ban and a legally binding end to overfishing”.
Other measures voted through included a transfer of decision-making powers from Brussels to regional fishing organisations, the promotion of low-impact fishing methods and moves to bring the European fishing fleet into line with the available fish stock.
It is estimated that three quarters of European stocks are overfished and there has been enormous public pressure for tougher limits on catches. Under the current CFP quota system, vessels must throw away any fish exceeding their quota, or any species outside their quota.
The new measures would limit fishing to “maximum sustainable yields” – meaning that no more fish would be caught than the existing stock could reproduce. A deal must now be reached between the European Commission and fisheries ministers in EU member states, to ratify the reforms.
Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, who launched the Fish Fight campaign calling for a ban on discards two years ago, said MEPs had sent a “strong message” to the Council of Ministers. “We need to keep fighting to make sure that the implantation of the ban is rigorous and effective and achieves its principle aim: to eliminate the waste of good fish and help the industry towards a more sustainable future,” he added,
“This vote marks a crucial turning point in the battle to save Europe’s seas from overfishing and protect the livelihoods of coastal fishermen,” said Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaigner, Willie Mackenzie.
UK fishing group, The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation, cautiously welcomed the reforms as “a step towards a more rational and effective fisheries policy”, but called for careful implementation of the policies.
“The European Parliament now has a mandate to begin discussions with the other European institutions. We hope that rhetoric and grandstanding will be left behind as the talks focus on the real outstanding issues,” said chief executive Barrie Deas.