‘Baltic Plan’ gives hope to seabirds but fails to end overfishing

Baltic sea fishing. Photo: Flickr/Maciej Lewandowski
The just-agreed on Baltic Plan includes badly needed measures to stop the incidental bycatch of seabirds but fails to end overfishing. Photo: Flickr/Maciej Lewandowski

The good news: On 15 March, the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission finalised the negotiations on the multiannual plan for the management of the Baltic Sea cod, sprat and herring stocks – the so-called “Baltic Plan”. It is the first plan under the European Commission’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which aims to ensure that fishing are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

The European Parliament managed to include measures to minimise the impacts of fishing on the marine environment, including reducing the accidental catching of seabirds, dolphins, and sea turtles, in the final agreement. These specific and important measures had not been included in the original proposal by the European Commission. The Baltic Sea is a well-known hotspot for bycatch of seabirds with about 76.000 seabirds (mainly marine diving ducks) drowning in fishing nets every year.

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How the fishing sector and environmental NGOs work together

A fishing boat on the North Sea, trailed by dozens of seabirds attracted by the fish caught. Photo: Sarahhoa/Flickr
A fishing boat on the North Sea, trailed by dozens of seabirds attracted by the fish caught. Photo: Sarahhoa/Flickr

When I began working on marine policy twenty years ago, the atmosphere between fishermen and NGOs was hostile and confrontational.

It wasn’t just because the state of Europe’s fish stocks and the marine environment was much worse then, there was also hardly any dialogue with fishermen and the expectation was that they alone should change their ways, without outside assistance. Fishermen felt victimised. Pressured from all sides, including by the media, the fishermen responded by breaking the rules, which led to even more overfishing and a downward spiral of diminishing returns.

When we see how things have changed today – how BirdLife partners are working on deck with fishermen from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and Iceland to reduce seabird bycatch (the accidental killing of birds as they are caught during fishing) – we can see how far we have come.

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Failure to act on ambition

Fishing boats in Ireland. Photo: WIlliam Murphy/Flickr

As experienced and successful politicians, ministers are adept at obfuscation; the Teflon characteristics that Bertie Ahern was celebrated for. So how to respond to a minister responsible for fisheries when he asserts that, “the state of fish stocks generally is improving”, as if he is an innocent observer, while ministers continue to set fishing limits above scientific advice, 38 out of 62 assessed stocks are outside safe biological limits, and it is not known how many stocks have actually been restored to healthy levels? For the duration of the present government this minister has held responsibility for fisheries, yet in this time the rate of EU overfishing has even increased. So does “generally improving” resonate as a reasonable response?

He goes onto reiterate “his commitment that all fish stocks should reach the target of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2020”. But this is not what the legislation, which he was pivotal in negotiating as chair of the EU Presidency in the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2013, states. The law is unequivocal on this:

“In order to reach the objective of progressively restoring and maintaining populations of fish stocks above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield, the maximum sustainable yield exploitation rate shall be achieved by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020 for all stocks.”

“…at the latest by 2020 …”, there is no “should” in there, and there is clear reference to ‘above biomass levels’.

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Why protected areas matter

Zakynthos, Ionian Sea © Greek National Tourism Organisation

This summer when you visit the seaside you might come across a stretch of beach that’s off limits – a coastal ’marine protected area’. You might get annoyed when looking down at that empty glorious soft sand, and then have to turn back to that tourist packed, noise polluted beach…why would anyone do this to you? Don’t take it personally, an off limit beach isn’t there to offend, it serves a purpose. It’s a special place that has been set aside to protect a wild animal, plant, or habitat.

Just think, if you wouldn’t enjoy a beach jammed with tourists, what animal would? Take sea turtles, who burrow their eggs in the sand – tourists on the beach can only mean one thing: a mixture of scrambled eggs and sand. Even worse, sea turtles wouldn’t dare venture up onto a beach in the first place if they spotted people sprawled on towels, children running around, kites flying, and beach volleyball courts.

Obviously, an area that’s protected doesn’t mean you can’t go to another beach to sunbathe, take a dip and enjoy – it’s just that some of the coast needs to be shared with wild animals and plants that wouldn’t otherwise survive if people were around.

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