Countdown 2020 – will the EU deliver its promise of healthy seas and shift to low-impact fishing?

A cage full of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean. Overfishing has driven the magnificent species close to commercial extinction.

The European Union (EU) governs the largest maritime zone in the world, but European seas are also  amongst the most degraded waters on the planet. Decades of bad fisheries management have led to depleted fish stocks, a damaged marine environment and significant job losses in the fishing sector.

EU governments have agreed to:

  • achieve a good environmental status in its marine waters by 2020, and
  • end overfishing on a progressive basis, no later than 2020, with a view to recover fish populations.

EU fisheries policy

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets the main fishing rules in the EU, was reformed in 2014. This reform was initiated against the backdrop of severe stock depletion. In 2008, 30 percent of the stocks for which information existed were assessed to be outside safe biological levels, meaning they had a reduced capacity for reproduction, and 80 percent of stocks were being overfished.

Failing fisheries come at a high price. Compiling global data on fisheries in a one-off report, the World Bank calculated in 2009 that failing fisheries management is costing the world around $50 billion annually (€45 billion approx.).

The new CFP could now bring much needed changes in European fisheries, provided the rules are respected by EU countries and their fishing sectors. In summary, they are required to:

-        end overfishing and recover fish stock populations to healthy levels;

-        remove excessive fishing capacity within their fleet;

-        minimise destructive and wasteful fishing practices ;

-        promote sustainable and low-impact fishing by giving preferential access to fishing grounds to those fishermen that use fishing methods with a low impact on the marine environment and contribute most to the local economy;  and

-        ensure their fleets fish sustainably also when they operate outside EU waters.

Greenpeace is campaigning across Europe to push governments to end overfishing, eliminate excess fishing capacity in the EU fleet and shift towards sustainable and low-impact fishing.   

EU marine conservation laws

The EU’s marine strategy framework directive (MSFD) requires member states to reach a good environmental status for Europe’s seas by 2020 by implementing national marine strategies. Governments must act to protect and preserve the marine environment, including by preventing and reducing harmful inputs, establishing marine protected areas and by implementing an ecosystem-based approach to the management of human activities to ensure that the collective pressure of such activities is kept within levels compatible with the achievement of ‘good environmental status’. The MSFD builds on and is complemented by the habitats and birds directives, the water framework directive and other EU legislation aimed at reducing pollution.

Greenpeace is campaigning for the protection of marine reserves, including by challenging EU governments to eliminate impacts from fishing in such reserves.  A map of the areas that governments have committed to protect can be found here.

‘Plenty more fish in the sea’ no more

Many coastal fishermen struggle to make a living and more than 60 percent of the seafood on the European market has to be imported. A study by the New Economic Foundation shows that restoring just 43 European fish stocks in the Northern Seas to sustainable levels would generate more than €3 billion in additional landings, which could support the creation of more than 100,000 additional jobs in the sector.

According to the European Commission, the EU fleet is capable of catching between two and three times the amount of fish that would be acceptable to keep our fish stocks healthy.  As a consequence, fishing often exceeds sustainable levels. In the Mediterranean Sea the situation is very worrying: nine out of ten stocks are overfished.  In the Atlantic and the North Sea, the situation seems to be improving due to the recent strengthening of management measures, but the majority of stocks are still overfished.

Greenpeace recently singled out some of the largest and most destructive fishing vessels operating under European flags, ownership or management, which have received most of the subsidies for decades and still have access to the biggest share of fishing opportunities.  

The solution - sustainable and low impact fishing

The new CFP requires EU governments to set fishing limits at a sustainable level, eliminate the most destructive part of their fleet and give preferential access to fishing grounds to low-impact fishermen. To achieve this, they must allocate access to fishing grounds on the basis of environmental, social and economic criteria. This should favour sustainable small-scale fishing, create jobs in the fishing industry and restore fish stocks.

Greenpeace works with low-impact fishermen to bring pressure on governments to discontinue destructive fishing and promote a shift to low-impact fishing.

The latest updates


A deep sea disaster

Publication | November 29, 2010 at 13:44

A 2 page briefing on one of Europe’s most destructive fishing sectors

Our demands of the Hungarian EU Presidency

Publication | November 18, 2010 at 0:00

Greenpeace demands of the Hungarian EU Presidency 2011

How Africa is feeding Europe

Publication | September 13, 2010 at 16:15

Many of Europe's fishing fleets have the capacity to fish two to three times more than the sustainable level. This overcapacity has led to the current dire state of European fisheries. In European waters, the level of overfishing is higher than...

Stolen fish - How Africa feeds Europe

Publication | September 1, 2010 at 0:00

One of the biggest threats facing the world’s oceans today is overfishing. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over 75% of all fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. In European waters, the level...

España - The Destructive Practices of Spain's Fishing Armada

Publication | May 3, 2010 at 0:00

Spain’s fleet is now plundering waters as far away as Antarctica and Africa using European taxpayers’ money, according to a new Greenpeace report.

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