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EU judges drive a trawler through the EU’s legal ban on overfishing

January 12, 2024

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An attempt to make the EU enforce its own 2013 ban on fishing any stocks above scientific advice was thrown out by the EU Court yesterday. The case brought by Friends of the Irish Environment and Client Earth attempted to end the “annual scandal” of Ministers approving overfishing. The Court ruled that EU ministers would be breaking the law if they approve overfishing of “target stocks” – ie most commercial fish species. But they fell short of applying the same rules to the overfishing of “bycatch stocks” caught in the same fisheries. A Client Earth spokesman said the ruling “provides clarity” but that it failed to view the ocean “as one living and breathing ecosystem.”

Tom Appleby, chief legal affairs adviser to Blue Marine Foundation, said:

“The judges of the European Court have just condoned overfishing and there is a strong element of the fantastical here. Judges believe fishermen and regulators apply other rules and technical fixes and these will bring back overfished stocks. The reality is that statutory measures such as the landing obligation – or discard ban – are neither applied nor enforced. So this judgement actually condemns some historically important stocks of fish, such as cod, whiting, plaice and sole to oblivion.

“On paper some of this looks good, in practice not so much. The Court has ruled that the overfishing of ‘target stocks’ ie the main commercial fish species, is illegal, as the present Common Fisheries Policy says. This looks like a positive ruling for fish and the marine environment. But the Court has stopped short of applying the rule that fishing opportunities may not be allocated above scientific advice to ‘bycatch stocks’ – stocks which used to be plentiful but which are now caught in other fisheries, for instance Irish Sea cod. There they believe that ‘technical measures’ – bigger mesh panels and so on – and the ban on discarding which means all catches are counted against quota will save these species from extinction.

“What will happen, as a particular stock gets more overfished, is that it will just be reclassified as a ‘bycatch stock’ and fishing on it will continue continue at a level that means it cannot recover. That already happens.

“It is frustrating to see the EU Court so out of touch with reality. The UK – which now has a quite different set of laws- must reflect seriously on colluding with EU attempts to reclassify stocks as bycatch and therefore in no need of protection. That is no way to restore health to our common sea.”

Arthur Meeus, ClientEarth’s marine wildlife and habitats lawyer, said: “Our seas are in a dire state – continuing to exploit them at levels that will eventually leave both fishers and coastal communities without fish to catch and the marine environment in jeopardy cannot go unchallenged.

“Today’s ruling provides clarity – going forward, approving overfishing for target stocks is illegal. However, it’s disappointing that the Court did not follow the Advocate General’s Opinion [the Court’s top legal adviser] and has not confirmed that the obligation to end overfishing applies equally to bycatch stocks.”

Advocate General Capeta called last autumn for the Court to rule as invalid any decision of ministers to allow overfishing after 2020.

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