In a world of chronic fishing overcapacity and chronic overfishing leading to endemic global fish stock collapse, the European Union is a conspicuous culprit. As the New Economics Foundation set out earlier this year the EU is a fish debtor (it eats more than it can catch) and more than 70% of Europe’s fish stocks are overfished.
Europe’s seas have been fished to the point where Europe’s boats are driven to the distant oceans of the developing world in search of booty. The Common Fisheries Policy – the central piece of architecture governing the EU’s fishing industry has been an abject failure. It is abundantly clear, as the UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon has said, ‘[w]e need a radical reform of the failed Common Fisheries Policy.’
The CFP is undergoing a once in a decade reform process – and that is where national political economy comes in to things. Spain is by far the greatest fiscal beneficiary of the CFP. Spain has by far the largest fleet in Europe including some large industrial scale fishing operators, fuelled by massive European taxpayer funded subsidies. Historically, it has been Spain that has led a group of EU nations blocking positive change on the CFP and as the chief benefactor of the existing arrangements, Madrid is looking to do the same again.
It seems that Spain does not even support the introduction of measures to end the madness of fish discards, as highlighted in the wildly popular Fish Fight campaign led by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Recent exposés published by Greenpeace and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, earlier work by Oceana, and the trenchant ongoing efforts by fishsubsidy.org respectively, have laid bare the disastrous influence of Spain’s industrial scale fishing sector. It is these vested interests that make Spain the leading nation in blocking radical reform of the CFP. The reports also highlight numerous instances of illegality.
So far the EU has provided a measured response. According to EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki:
The serious allegations are already under investigation by the European Commission and being followed up with the Spanish national authorities. We are establishing all facts in order to pursue breaches.
Damanaki is an impressive and reformist figure. But the broader question of sorting out Europe’s fishing policy framework requires a political solution that is beyond the power of the Commissioner to deliver.
The only way to overcome Spanish opposition to meaningful reform of the CFP will be for other countries to exercise the necessary determination. If there is to be any chance of success then the likes of Richard Benyon will need to show the strength of their convictions in the need for radical reform in order to stand up to the Spanish industrial scale fishing sector.
Leading British environmental journalist Richard Black has suggested that the broader European sovereign debt crisis has created an atmosphere in which tackling the CFP’s absurd structure – in which subsidies actually reward environmentally and economically unsound fishing practices – has become possible.
One window of opportunity could be the financial mess in which Spain finds itself - not on the scale of Greece, but mentioned whenever the "who's next after Greece?" question gets asked. Some of its economic indicators are around the European average, but 20% unemployment is anything but - the highest in the bloc, in fact. If research is showing that cutting fishing capacity would increase revenues, why not demand Spain trims its industrial fleet as a condition for economic aid?
A successful reform of the CFP will remove all perverse subsidies, as well as addressing overcapacity in Europe’s fishing fleet and require fishing levels to follow the science. A new and better CFP must also improve transparency and governance, recognised the vital importance of creating no-take marine reserves to the long term viability of marine ecosystems and fish stocks, and of course effectively put an end to the mad practice of discards.
Disclosure – the author works on the Greenpeace oceans campaign. Follow David Ritter on Twitter here.