EU fisheries ministers meeting in Brussels until early this morning (27 February) have agreed to ban the practice of discarding fish. But in a compromise with reluctant Southern member states, the ban will begin later than proposed by the European Commission and MEPs and continue to allow some discards to account for 'accidental' by-catches.
Under the agreement, discards would be phased out between 2014 and 2017. A ban on discarding pelagic fish, which are higher up in the food chain, will take place earlier – by 2015. Discards of demersal stocks would be banned from January 2016. Stocks in the Mediterranean would be the last to have a discard ban, from January 2017.
Simon Coveney, Ireland's agriculture and fisheries minister, praised the hard-fought compromise, which could not be reached until 5am, as “a historic milestone.” But environmental groups decried it as full of loopholes and a major retreat from the ambitious position agreed by the Parliament earlier this month.
A compromise had to be reached between Northern European states, who wanted an early end date with few loopholes, and Southern states, who wanted later end dates with more flexibility. Sweden refused to endorse the final text after Southern states were successful in inserting a provision that would continue to allow up to 7% of catches to be discarded after 2017. The position did not need unanimity, and passed by qualified majority.
The Commission estimates that currently 23% of fish caught are thrown back into the sea, but campaigners say this figure is more likely to be around 40%.
Earlier this month the Parliament agreed a position that would implement a full ban on all stocks by 2015. Isabella Lövin, a Swedish MEP who is the fisheries spokesperson for the Greens, said the Parliament will resist the attempt to introduce flexibilities. The Parliament has co-decision over the CFP for the first time because of new powers introduced by the Lisbon Treaty.
“EU governments have agreed a depressingly unambitious position, after bowing to pressure from countries like France and Spain,” she said. "A proposed ban on the senseless, wasteful practise of fish discards would be rendered effectively meaningless by the loopholes proposed by fisheries ministers.”
Campaigners called on MEPs to resist the Council position, saying many Northern European countries are unhappy with the compromise, which puts the Council in a weaker position. “While Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Austria negotiated hard to minimise any exemptions to a discards ban, the final deal fails to match Parliament's leadership,” said Uta Bellion of the OCEAN2012 campaign.
But fishermen welcomed the flexibilities. “Ministers seem to have taken care to agree upon a practical plan that would work for the fishing industry and we are pleased that a more realistic timescale for the implementation of a discards plan was agreed," said Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermans Federation. “We also welcome the provision for a degree of flexibility in the plan so as to take into account any practical difficulties in implementing the scheme."
Maria Damanaki, European commissioner for fisheries, said after the meeting that the negotiations had been “difficult” but the Commission “respects” the agreement. “At the end of the day I hope that we're going to have a really new fisheries policy,” she added.
Negotiations with MEPs will begin in the next few weeks. The Irish Presidency hopes to reach a final agreement by July.