Commission bids for precaution in fishing

EU executive in new attempt to wean governments off annual catch allowance setting

The European Commission has launched a new push to put EU decision making on total allowable catches (TACs) for marine fisheries on a more scientifically justified basis. A communication released today also provides an early case study for application of the precautionary principle to an environmental policy field.

EU decision making on TACs is famously political, fought out annually by member states, who are regularly faced with irreconcilable demands from scientists and from national fishing industries. In 1994, the Commission tried to introduce multi-annual decision making, but EU countries failed to agree its proposal.

The time is now ripe for another attempt, the Commission says. The need for medium-term strategies is now urgent, it says. Meanwhile, awareness of the pitfalls of "the current short-term approach" has grown and the scientific information available on which to base medium-term strategies has improved. In addition, the communication says, meetings organised under the French EU presidency have shown wide acceptance for multi-annual decision making to be based on the precautionary principle.

Legislative proposals are to be made later, after further scientific assessments of precaution-based multi-annual TAC setting and wide consultation with stakeholders. However, the Commission stresses that although a broad-ranging reform of the EU's common fisheries policy is already on the cards (ENDS Daily 28 June), action on TACs is needed earlier.

Under the Commission's general proposals, multi-annual strategies for each fish species would be agreed based on "planned" development of fishing mortality. This would be combined with measures on the one hand to enable quick reaction if stocks moved too close too collapse and on the other to prevent too wide year-on-year variations in TACs, so enabling forward planning by the fishing industry. "The major difficulty will involve a trade-off between the two latter measures," the communication comments.

In practice, applying the precautionary principle fully to TAC setting will be complex, the Commission says, acknowledging that its introduction in 1998 by advisory body the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) has sparked numerous complaints.

Finding a "balanced approach" also requires agreement on the respective roles of scientific advisors, who can assess risk, and public authorities which must make risk management decisions. The boundary "can become blurred," the Commission says. "Efforts have to be made to avoid confusing the various roles, although it may not be possible to avoid some overlap."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 299 1111, and press release.

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