Spain and Portugal risk overfishing in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay

The governments of Spain and Portugal want to allow more fishing in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay in 2022 than the EU Commission and its scientific advisers are demanding in order to avert the threat of extinction of fish stocks. This is according to internal reports on the negotiations in the Council of the EU on legal fishing quotas, obtained by Investigate Europe. According to the report, the two governments do not want to accept that: 

  • their fishermen in the western Mediterranean reduce fishing with the particularly harmful trawl nets in order to protect the stocks of bottom-dwelling fish species;
  • the catches of hake, sole and shrimp are to be reduced by one-fifth to a half in the same region in order to protect against overfishing;
  • the fishing of Norway lobster off the Spanish coasts must cease completely in some regions and be substantially reduced in the Gulf of Cadiz. 

EU fisheries ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday (December 14, 2021) to negotiate these and other demands to protect fish stocks. 

The two governments had indicated their opposition to the requested safeguard measures at the meetings of the Council Working Party on Fisheries on November 18 and 25. 

The Spanish representative took the floor twice and opposed the “further reduction of trawl net fishery” and the catching of shrimp and demersal species.

This attitude “clearly contradicts the scientific advice”, says marine ecologist Javier Lopez, who follows the EU’s controversial fisheries policy for the environmental organisation Oceana. So far, the catch of demersal fish in the western Mediterranean Sea amounts to 2.7 times the amount determined as “maximum sustainable yield”. The measures taken so far are therefore “completely insufficient” and “the Commission is right to demand a drastic reduction”, he says.

The Spanish Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Luis Planas, flatly denies the contradiction. When asked, his spokesperson explained that the Spanish fishing industry had already “made significant reductions in fishing effort in the Mediterranean over the last two years”. Therefore, their “impact must be assessed” before “further reductions jeopardise the viability of the Mediterranean fleet”.  

“So the government would rather risk further overfishing than let fishermen face the truth,” commented marine conservationist Lopez. 

The Portuguese government is acting in a similar way. It demanded in writing that the catch quotas for hake and sole be extended by means of a “roll-over” and that they not be reduced further, contrary to the explicit advice of the experts appointed by the EU. A spokesperson for the responsible minister, Ricardo Serrão Santos, explained in response to a question from IE that the scientists would “only consider the environmental component.” But “as with all scientific advice,” he wrote, there was “room for manoeuvre to discuss and negotiate different approaches within the limits of the model.”

However, the Iberian governments are not alone in this stance, according to fisheries expert Jenni Grossmann, who has long campaigned for the protection of fish stocks on behalf of the environmental organisation Client Earth. Looking through the minutes from the Council working group that IE submitted to her, Grossmann came across numerous “notes” and “comments” from the representatives from Denmark, France, Ireland and Sweden, who were also against further restrictions. 

Grossmann fears that for the North Sea and the North Atlantic, the northern EU states, together with Norway and Great Britain, “would rather risk overfishing with reference to scientific uncertainties than take the precaution of reducing fishing quotas”. 

Yet this is precisely what would be legally imperative. As early as 2013, the EU states made a legal commitment to end overfishing in Europe’s seas by 2020. But in many regions, this target was missed because the responsible ministers gave in to the demands of the fishing industry. “Many catch limits were still set above recommendations despite the Commission’s efforts to steer things in the right direction,” Grossmann lamented in an interview with IE after last year’s negotiations on fishing quotas. Examples, she said, include southern hake, sole in the Bay of Biscay and Iberian waters, and cod in the Kattegat. For all these stocks, data is limited and that is why “more caution is needed”, but the Council of the EU has “set many limits above scientific advice, putting the recovery of stocks at risk”.

The same lapse now threatens again, fears Javier Lopez of Oceana. “The Commission stands alone in the Council,” he says. “The governments will cover for each other, and no one will be outvoted.”