It may not have hit the headlines, but this week something of huge importance happened. A set of sweeping reforms has been agreed in the European Parliament in Strasbourg that will restore Europe's fish stocks and guarantee the livelihoods of fishermen across the UK for generations to come. The EU's Common Fisheries Policy, once a byword for waste and mass overfishing, is being radically overhauled so that it puts long-term sustainability ahead of short-term profits.
The situation right now is drastic. Job losses within the UK fishing sector continue to rise as fish stocks fall, and it tends to be the small-scale fishermen who are hardest hit. The total amount of fish caught in the EU has plummeted from 7.9million tonnes in 2002 to around 4.8million this year, meaning that 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 the problem is not with the EU itself. In fact, overfishing in Britain was already well underway before we joined, with landing of fish peaking in the mid-1950s. To manage our fish stocks, which constantly migrate from one coast to another, it's clear we need to have some sort of international framework with our European neighbours. The problem has more been the way that each country's annual fishing quotas are set, with national ministers each trying to get the best possible deal for their fishermen while ignoring the long-term implications. The WWF estimates that on average EU quotas have exceeded scientific advice by 45% over the past decade - leading to overfishing on a massive scale.
The most important aspect of these new reforms is that fishing quotas will now have to fit into a long-term plan based on scientific advice, with the aim of restoring Europe's fish stocks by 2020. That is ambitious, but achievable. Meanwhile the wasteful discarding of edible fish, which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has campaigned hard together with Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies to abolish, is going to be gradually phased out. There are also special provisions to protect the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen who do minimal damage to the environment. And in a blow to those who say power can't ever flow back from the EU, day-to-day decisions are being handed back from Brussels to local communities who understand local conditions.
They will ensure that our children and grandchildren will still be able to eat locally sourced fish. They will make sure that we are building a stronger economy for the long term for our fishing communities and giving them back a future. But they also have symbolic importance. They show that when the UK is constructive and pushes for reform of the EU, it can deliver real results. And that is what Liberal Democrats, as the Party of In, will continue to work towards. Unlike the Tories and UKIP, we understand that the best way to stand up for Britain in Brussels is to roll up our sleeves, build alliances and reform Europe from within.