Today marks a historic step in the fight for a more rational approach to Europe's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The European Parliament has voted on a major reform of the CFP, making full use of its new powers as co-legislator in this area. These reforms should ensure that Europe's fish stocks are preserved for future generations and that the long-term viability of the fishing industry is prioritised over short-term profits.
As an MEP I have long been campaigning for a more sustainable fisheries policy. That is why I set up the Fish for the Future group, a cross-party group of MEPs which has worked together to build a consensus on reforming the CFP. I've also been part of TV Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign to end the practice of discards. Time and again, I've urged my colleagues in the European Parliament to put short-term profits aside and adopt a more long-term outlook.
Few people have a good word to say about the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), least of all the European Commissioner responsible for administering it. "A failure" is one of the kinder terms she has used to describe it. The CFP is one of the few measures that British MPs can actually name when they express their dislike of the EU. London mayor Boris Johnson is just one of many UK politicians who have called for fishing policy to be 'repatriated'.
Many fisheries are being managed unsustainably, and job losses within the fishing sector are continuing inexorably as fish stocks decline. Latest figures from the EU Fish Processors and Traders Association (AIPCE) highlight a dramatic fall in overall EU catches, from 7.9m tonnes in 2002 to an estimated 4.8m this year. Europe now imports two-thirds of all the fish it eats. Shamefully, each year millions of tons of perfectly edible fish are thrown overboard through the wasteful practice of discarding.
But whose fault is this? The blame cannot rest entirely with EU policy. Overfishing was already well underway way before the UK joined the then European Economic Community in 1973. Landings of fish in Britain peaked in the mid-1950s and then rapidly trailed off as boats got bigger and more sophisticated. We were doing a good job of destroying our own fish stocks all by ourselves.
Of course, the CFP didn't exactly make matters any better. However, the fundamental problem with the CFP has been the blinkered approach taken by national Ministers. Every December, EU Fisheries Ministers meet to set the Total Allowable Catch limits (TACs) for every fish species, and the individual Quota for every Member State. These Ministers have too often seen their goal as being to get the best possible quota for their fishermen in the next season without regard to the long term implication for fish stocks. Ironically, this short-term kindness will end up killing the fishing industry.
WWF, the world's largest environment charity, reckons that EU Ministers have set TACs exceeding scientific advice by 45% on average over the past decade - authorising overfishing on a huge scale. It need not be like this. We must put an end to short term fudges and stop ignoring the scientific evidence.
The proposed CFP reforms will establish long term management plans for every fishery based on the best available scientific advice. The aim will be to end overfishing by 2015 and restore Europe's fish population by 2020. That's ambitious but achievable.
The reforms will also bring an end to the discarding of commercial fish. In extreme cases up to 80% of the fish caught in some fisheries may be thrown overboard dead. That isn't just bad business, it is utterly immoral.
Many of us also want to help the small-scale fishing fleet. Small fishing vessels are doing very little harm to the environment and employ 70% of all fishermen. There are therefore special provisions for small-scale fishermen to ensure their livelihoods are protected. Ultimately though, it is also up to national governments to give them a bigger share of quotas.
Finally, the proposed reforms will put an end to unnecessary micromanagement from the European Commission, allowing day-to-day management to be undertaken by regional authorities who understand local conditions. This will show that powers can flow back from Brussels, but that this is best achieved through negotiation and EU-wide reform, not banging the table and demanding policies be 'repatriated' to the UK.
This is a historic opportunity to show that Europe is capable of reforming when its policies are clearly not working. The European Parliament has had its say, and will now enter into negotiations with the European Council to finalise the reform package. Of course there will be some difficult decisions, but we have to ensure that our fishing policy is right for the long term, grounded firmly in science and not based on narrow-minded, short-term interests. That's the only way to end discards, rebuild our fish stocks and secure a lasting future for our fishermen.