09/01/2014 06:50 GMT | Updated 10/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Fisheries Reform: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times?

2013 was a historic year for the conservation of European fisheries. A genuinely radical reform passed every hurdle in the EU's tangled system of government in time to enter into force at the beginning of 2014 - a personal triumph for European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, former radical and member of the Greek Communist party...

2013 was a historic year for the conservation of European fisheries. A genuinely radical reform passed every hurdle in the EU's tangled system of government in time to enter into force at the beginning of 2014 - a personal triumph for European Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, former radical and member of the Greek Communist party. Yet there was a potentially tragic coda to the year, as far as conservationists were concerned, in the shape of a failure of proposals to ban bottom trawling in the deep sea.

The practice of fishing with heavy gear 1,600-5,000 ft down has a devastating effect on fragile underwater habitats, marine life and long-lived fish, some stocks of which are overfished already, especially on deepwater sharks, several species of which are now actively endangered. On 10 December 2013 a proposal to ban bottom trawling below 600 metres in European waters was defeated by 342 votes to 326 in the European Parliament. Ironically, this proposal failed to win a majority on the very same day the main reform of Europe's abysmal fisheries regulations - which have allowed over 80 per cent of main commercial stocks to become overfished - sailed through by an overwhelming majority. So, it was a great year but the icing on the cake was missing. Or so it seemed.

Then, just before Christmas, when few people were paying much attention, it emerged that the vote on deep sea bottom trawling had been miscounted. 20 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) complained that their votes had been miscast or misrecorded and that the true count should have been 343 to 330 in favour of a trawling ban - a radical measure but one supported by the science. Most deep-water fish species are far slower growing than those nearer the surface. The orange roughy, for example - a species now so overfished that fishing for it is banned in EU waters - does not reach reproductive age until it is 30 and typically lives to well over 100 years old. Far older are deep-water corals that can take 8,500 years to form and yet be destroyed by the single sweep of a trawl.

EU Parliament rules mean that the vote against the trawling ban will stand. But the recount represents a moral victory for campaigners such as Claire Nouvian, of the French charity Bloom, who succeeded in winning 700,000 signatures for a petition addressed to President Hollande that called for a reversal of France's position of firm support for its deep-water fleet. Her campaign managed to expose just how little public support there was for a fleet that operates out of ports in Brittany, and fishes off the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland is majority-owned by just one supermarket chain, Intermarché.

The corrected vote places a very different complexion on the New Year. For now, under Europe's tripartite system of government, ministers from the 27 EU member states have an opportunity to consider the deep-sea trawl ban. This they will have to do seriously because it has behind it the force of popular will.

Meanwhile, it is a challenging time in all EU fisheries. A ban on discarding more than five per cent of undersized or non-target species of fish must be implemented progressively. Other major elements of reform include the legal requirement to set quotas no larger than recommended in scientific advice and a requirement on member states to reduce their fleets in line with fishing opportunities. Just how successful Europe's member states will be in complying with these requirements remains to be seen, however. As fishermen have pointed out, it remains unclear how 'discards' are to be phased out. It is assumed that fishermen will innovate by devising gear that does not catch non-target species or juvenile fish, or just move when they begin catching them. All fish must be landed, theoretically, but it remains to be seen if this actually happens or whether fishermen will go on discarding at sea.

EU ministers gave a welcome signal of how they mean to carry on when they set quotas much closer to scientific advice at their annual, pre-Christmas meeting last month. But there are many unresolved questions as the latest reforms bed-in. One is what happens if EU ministers slide back into routinely allocating quotas above scientific advice - as they have in the past. For example, in the case of deep-water species alone, politicians allowed scientific recommendations to be exceeded in 60 per cent of cases between 2002 and 2011. Then the fishing nations went on to catch more than 50 per cent more than they were allowed - a total disgrace.

European politicians have got away with this because, unlike in the United States, policymakers have not historically been held to account in the courts. This is changing, as a recent report commissioned by the Blue Marine Foundation (link here), points out. This study, which was authored by the University of the West of England, concluded that the revised EU Common Fisheries Policy framework could now allow interest groups, including environmental campaigners to mount credible legal challenges to the implementation of fisheries legislation - a practice that was previously impossible in the European Court.

This new rigour is likely to be felt first in conventional mixed fisheries - for cod, haddock and whiting, sole and plaice. There is going to have to be a degree of flexibility and common sense shown or some inshore fishermen with very little quota may find themselves unable to go to sea. For conservationists, the key focus will be whether politicians set quotas within what scientists say are sustainable limits and whether fishermen will then adhere to these limits. This will apply to deep-water stocks as well as to fish caught in coastal waters. Even without a trawl ban in the deep sea, it looks as though trawling there will be increasingly ensnarled in a wall of regulation that is likely to make the whole practice increasingly uneconomic. It is also difficult to see how anyone could calculate a sustainable quota for a deep water stock on a precautionary basis - as the new regulation requires. There is as much to be fought for in the implementation of this historic new reform as there was in the framing of it. Let us hope conservationists understand that they are in for a long fight.