"Fishing must be sustainable"

12 January, 2024

The EU’s highest court rules that the Council of Ministers breaks the law when it decides on overfishing of “target species”, stocks that fishing is directly aimed at. But at the same time, the court gives the ministers the right to “flexibility” in terms of bycatch.

The verdict is the first test of the EU’s fisheries law from 2013, which stipulates that from 2020 all stocks must be fished sustainably.

For decades, the Council of Ministers has decided to allow higher catches than science recommends. Only in 2009 did the European Commission admit that overfishing was devastating for the environment as well as jobs and the economy. This led to a reform of the entire fisheries policy. Discarding of fish was banned and all overfishing would be gone by 2020. But overfishing has continued and dumping of fish has accelerated.

Today’s judgment is one of several upcoming lawsuits concerning the EU’s overfishing. In 2020, the Irish organization Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) took its own government to court for not complying with EU fisheries law. FIE was supported by the lawyers in the environmental organization ClientEarth. Ireland’s High Court asked the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to rule on the matter.

The court states today that the EU’s goal of sustainable fishing “through an ongoing and gradual adaptation” according to the law should have been achieved by 2020 at the latest.

But in an ocean with many species, it is difficult to avoid and calculate bycatch, the court notes. Therefore, it accepts that ministers are given some flexibility regarding by-catches.

ClientEarth’s lawyer Arthur Meeus, specializing in laws that apply to the sea and life below the surface:

– Today’s ruling provides clarity – going forward, approving overfishing for target stocks is illegal. However, it’s disappointing that the Court (…) has not confirmed that the obligation to end overfishing applies equally to bycatch stocks.

Several organizations have reported the EU’s fisheries ministers for repeated violations of the EU’s fisheries law. Those cases have not yet been dealt with by the EU Court of Justice

Text: Peter Löfgren
Photo: Göran Elhmé, Leif Eiranson

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