The European Union (EU) Common Fisheries Policy

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Rebecca Brooks; Dexter Everett; Ian Fenner; Riley Kump-O'Brien. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

It is the goal of this piece to discuss the European Union’s 1983 Common Fisheries Policy, the ordinance under which all fishing activities within the European Union’s Exclusive Economic Zone are conducted. It will first discuss the impetus for creating the Policy, as well as the various state and non-state actors implicated in its inception. It will then discuss the evidence which indicated a necessity for such a policy, and an analysis of how the CFP functions and how effective it has been in its goal.

Exclusive Economic Zone of the EU.By Treehill, Augusta 89 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

When the European Union was established with the Treaty of Rome in 1958, a section of the document did state that there should be some common fisheries policy produced and implemented for the Union to follow.[1] At the time, however, no policy was pursued any further. Partly, this was because, for the six founding EU members, fish and seafood in general constituted a relative small portion of their respective national diets and was therefore considered to be an issue subordinate to agriculture. More importantly, management of the fishing industry in any way was deemed relatively unimportant, mostly because regional fish stocks appeared to remain quite plentiful well into the 1960s. [1] Even when the CFP was enacted in 1983, there was a sense, albeit largely an imagined one, that fish supplies were acceptably stable. In any event, seafood was a staple food for Europe in general, and it was deemed crucial that demand be filled regardless of consequences. [1]

Additionally, the decades following World War II had not been particularly productive ones in terms of international cooperation. Various attempts by governments to negotiate common management practices for territorial waters adjacent to those of another territory had yielded dismal results, if they had not ended in outright failure.[1] Consequently, numerous nations around the world had begun executing what might best be considered land grabs at sea, by unilaterally extending their territorial waters, with some South American nations declaring them to extend to up to 200 miles from their coasts. As such, lawmakers in Europe increasingly saw international law regarding the sea to be a mercenary business, and that any attempts at instituting multilateral management of ocean resources would be a waste of time.[1]

In practice, this meant that after 1964 European nations exercised complete control of waters only within 12 miles of their coastlines. Beyond this territorial limit, the sea was considered to be international water, not subject to any nation’s laws, and therefore could be fished completely at the whim of any fishing captain.[1] Inevitably, this led to significant overfishing; in the 1970s, for instance, the stock of herring in the North Sea crashed, clear evidence that the species was being overexploited.[1] Fundamentally, this was an enactment of the phenomenon known to economists as the tragedy of the commons. With little incentive to limit the amount of fish they harvested, or give much thought to where they harvested from, fishermen simply sought the areas of the sea where fish were most plentiful. By remaining at least 12 miles from any coastline, they were free to harvest as they pleased, with an obvious economic incentive to harvest as much as possible at any one time.[1]

This created a problem. It fostered a scenario in which some individual fishermen stood to profit greatly, at least for a time. It was of particular benefit to those operations equipped to harvest vast quantities of fish in one voyage, while being detrimental to smaller operations unable to compete with the economies of scale of larger vessels.[1] At the same time, it created the real possibility that fisheries of the future would be unable to operate on any scale, simply due to a complete collapse in fish stocks.[1] Thus, in terms of winners and losers in the pre-CFP era, there was a clear temporal aspect, where fishermen of the present reaped the advantages of the unregulated fisheries, while future fishing operations could very well have been infeasible.[1] The potential collapse of fisheries would have had other negative impacts beyond economics, however. Many European countries have, at some level, a relationship with the sea, and the activity of fishing represents a cultural and historical focal point for numerous communities along European coastlines. Furthermore, seafood is a key food source for many Europeans, creates many jobs related to supporting fisheries, and is generally considered a point of pride in many European nations.[1] The unregulated fishing industry may, therefore, have brought about collapse of the fisheries, which would in turn have been detrimental not only to fishermen, but on the food stocks of entire nations, their overall employment rates, and their cultural and historical identities.

More concretely, the groups involved in the creation and continued maintenance and negotiations surrounding the EUCFP include the governments comprising the European Union, as it is mostly these which play the active role in enforcing the regulations stipulated by the Policy. [2] Interested groups also include a number of environmental NGOs concerned with ensuring that fish stocks are maintained at such a level that biodiversity is not threatened, and that the various species do not become endangered. Concerned parties also include the lobby groups for the fishing and fish-processing industries, seeking to ensure the longevity and profitability of these industries, as well as consumer advocate groups, seeking to ensure that greatly regulation does not lead to exorbitant prices for consumers. [2] While these groups clearly have competing aims, the CFP has been remarkably successful.

Although a recent reform in 2013 to the EU Common Fisheries Policy shows promising signs for its future,[3] it is widely acknowledged that the CFP, for the most part, has done little to alleviate the problems that EU fisheries have been facing for quite some time.[4] It is important to state here that, although the CFP has been criticized by both fishermen, who argue it is responsible for their reduced catch levels[5] and others contending it has had horrible environmental consequences,[6] the real picture is more complex than this, and is largely rooted in both the historical overexploitation of bottom-dwelling fish resulting in large alterations to seabed ecosystems through trawl fishing,[7] as well as the decision-making structure of the CFP itself. Ruth and colleagues showed changes in total landings of various bottom-living fish species and total fishing power of large British trawler fisheries from 1889 to 2007 in Figure 1 of their article [7]. Although the CFP has done little to reverse the continuing decline in European fish stocks, it is not the primary cause of it. Analyzing historical data on the annual amount of demersal (bottom-dwelling) fish that had been caught by trawl fishers since the late 19th century, Ruth, Brockington & Roberts found that, for some species, this catch rate had declined by as much as 99%.[7] Thus, the CFP cannot be solely responsible for this, given that declines had been occurring far before its implementation. Much of the criticism for the EU Common Fisheries Policy is aimed at its practices and how it is structurally organized. As is the case with many fisheries, the annual catch in the EU is consistently beyond levels deemed reasonable by scientists. For reference, the CFP aims to maintain a stock size that is around 30% of the total amount of stock that would be present if fishing in European waters did not occur.[4] Below this value, it is expected that fish ecosystems will likely have a reduced reproductive capacity, potentially compromising future fishing efforts.[4] Government scientists make their recommendations to the European Commission on the total allowable catch (TAC) that can be maintained without fish populations falling below this value.[4] The Commission, in turn, considers these recommendations and drafts them into policies that it passes up to the Council of Ministers, who then make the final decision on TACs and most other management policies.[8] It is not difficult to see that this structure of decision-making, coupled with a lack of scientific understanding by those in charge, could lead to the implementation of TACs far above what is likely sustainable in the long run, and this is exactly what happens. The Council’s proposals for limits on fishing usually far exceed those recommended by scientists, as they are continually trying to “satisfy local constituency interests”.[8]

Discarding fish is also a major problem in EU fisheries, and is primarily due to both economics and CFP policy. Under the CFP, it is required that when catch exceeds quota, any excess fish that are caught above quota must be released back into the ocean.[9] On the surface this may seem like a positive policy, however, these discarded fish typically do not survive when released, and are thus essentially a waste of stock.[9] These discards reduce the overall stock that is available for catch while also decreasing the reproductive capacity of fisheries by preventing otherwise viable fish from reproducing in the future.[9] This problem is further compounded by the economics of EU fisheries. The property rights surrounding fisheries in the EU are largely ill-defined,[4] and prevent effective limits from being placed on who is allowed to fish where. This prompts fishing companies to invest large sums of money into over-harvesting to outdo their competitors, resulting in catches that consistently exceed quota, thereby further increasing the amount of fish that gets discarded.[4] Both the implementation of TAC’s far above what scientists recommend as well as the high rates of discarding in the EU are both symptoms of the larger problem of the centralized structure of the CFP. The Council of Ministers is responsible for introducing management measures that states under the CFP must abide by, however, these measures are for the most part poorly designed, and their implementation is left to the states themselves.[8] Often, there is incompatibility between these measures and the political will or capability of the states to actually implement them.[8] It is also often difficult for the Commission to properly enforce them. Though the Commission is capable of pressuring states through legal means and by refusing funding, legal processes often take a very long time to resolve, and refusing funding is generally ineffective for a number of reasons.[8] Overall, the ineffective management of EU fisheries can be traced to both a long history of mismanagement, as well as the CFP’s centralized, top-down structure, whereby government scientists are largely ignored, and member states have no input regarding policies drafted by people far removed from their situation.

A new reform to the CFP in 2013 addresses some of these issues, though given its recent introduction, it remains to be seen how effective it will be. In the realm of scientific policy, it was agreed that achieving maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2020 should be the long-term objective of EU fisheries.[1] The notion of maximum sustainable yield is a common idea in fisheries management, however, until recently, it was not a key policy of the CFP.[1] The Maximum sustainable yield is defined as the largest amount of fish that can be harvested from a fishery over a set period of time without compromising the ability of the fishery to regenerate stock.[1] Prior to this reform, achieving sustainable objectives for fisheries in the long run was difficult due to the reliance on setting the short-term goals of TACs. Now, with the implementation of the concept of MSY, the hope is that the CFP will be able focus on both short-term goals through TACs, as well as long-term ones through the MSY so that economic goals can be met year-by-year while also ensuring long-term sustainability.[1]

Another key change involved a focus on regionalization, and giving more power to the Member States. Where previously Member States were required to implement CFP policy enacted by the Council of Ministers, even in situations where it was incompatible with state realities, states could now submit proposals to the Commission, who can refuse or implement said proposals depending on whether they conflict with EU law or CFP policy.[1]

While these new policies provide hope for the future, there are certain aspects of the power structure of the EU and the CFP which could hinder their implementation.[1] This is important, as without proper mechanisms whereby these policies can be implemented, they are largely useless. Thus, the long-term efficacy of the 2013 reform remains to be seen.

In this section, options for actions that can be taken to further improve the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) of the European Union will be discussed and evaluated. The first main issue that can be improved is changing the top-down structure into a bottom-up structure and enhancing the involvement of the stakeholders that hold claims within European Union (EU) fisheries. Second, scientific accuracy and quality of research that goes into making decisions in the CFP should be ameliorated. Finally, improving the translation between the policy itself to actions taken by all of the stakeholders to create a more sustainable and used approach to fishing within the EU.

Shrimp by-catch (Location: East Coast of w:Florida). By US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain

The top-down structure of the CFP is a major factor as to why it is so difficult to regulate the policy. It tends to allow the large-scale unsustainable fisheries, who are favoured by profit-seeking governments, to drown out the voices of the small-scale fishermen. While large-scale fisheries tend to make more profits, small-scale fishing is more selective in their catches due to the equipment used. This leads to a lower amount of by-catch in conjunction with less chance to catch fish that don’t meet regulations, which also increase the amount of wasted fish.[10] To shift the model to a bottom-up structure, the system needs to give more power to small-scale fishermen in the legislation. While they don’t necessarily have the scientific background, they are practicing methods which are better for environment which will help to sustain the fish populations for the future. Shared power in legislation will develop trust among all the stakeholders and creative promising conditions to enable collaborative management and operation of the policy.[10] Through involving the more abundant but smaller stakeholders, there will be a wider implementation of the policy making it less of an economic and political burden.

Putting a political and economic emphasis on small-scale sustainable fishing will encourage them to be representatively included in the CFP. Not only will it improve the collaborative management between stakeholders, but it will also improve the sustainability of fishing.

One way to do this might be to give more of the fishing quota to small-scale fishermen. The total allowable catch (TAC) is changed by the Council of Ministers on an annual basis based off of scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Most Member States will then usually allocate based on the historic track records of fishing companies which tend to be large-scale non-environmental fishing practices.[11] However, it would be more beneficial for the health of the ocean if Member States were to give the quota to those who fished in the most sustainable way, rather than to those who fished the most. This would greatly reduce habitat destruction and by-catch due to large-scale fishing operations using trawling and other methods that increase these affects.

Another way to increase the support of small-scale fishermen would be to increase their ability to make a livable wage. In the recent revision, the affordability of working as a small-scale fishman is trying to be improved.[12] Further improvement of making it a healthy living income will encourage more fishermen to switch to these practices.[13]

Furthermore, in order to put more emphasis on the support of small-scale fishermen, there could be a lower tax on fish caught through these methods. This would increase the likelihood of people buying from small-scale fishermen because the product would be more affordable. Although this would put more economic stress on large-scale fishing operations due to decreasing financial support from customers, it might encourage those operations to downsize to their more sustainable counterpart.

Another large problem in the EU is Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. Not only does this threaten the sustainability of large-scale and small-scale fisheries, but also ocean health. It increases the uncertainty of estimating stocks and makes determining a sustainable yield difficult.[14] It is estimated that 10 billion euros a year (about 15.7 billion CAD) and 15% of world catches are by IUU fishing.[12] While currently the EU is working with international organizations to list blacklisted vessels and non-cooperative countries, it is a large problem that is difficult to manage. Unsurprisingly, the largest motivator of IUU fishing is economics.[15] By decreasing profitability of IUU fishing, the amount of this type of fishing that takes place will most likely decrease. Two possible ways to decrease the profitability of IUU fishing are: to increase the enforcement fines and decreasing the market value of IUU fishing.[16] In addition, involving local fishers in a collaborative management model might also increase compliance against IUU fishing. Furthermore by making small-scale fishing more affordable and easy to do, there might also be a possible decrease in this negative practice. By putting more money into a legal activity, the illegal activity might be mitigated.

Due to the Common Fisheries Policy relying heavily on scientific advice, it is necessary to have good quality and accurate research. Improving the research quantity and quality lies in creating an incentive to perform the research. The most obvious solution for this is funding. Increasing the funding of research will create the allurement to complete it. The major question to this solution is: where will the money come from? One possibility might be to increase fines on illegal fishing practices and thus, that money can go into research.

One major issue of not having enough scientific research is the implications of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle signifies that when all of the evidence is not present, one should err on the side of caution to prevent further harm.[14] In the instance that there is not enough evidence, people tend to ignore the deterioration of stocks.[1] During negotiations of management measures, non-scientists involved in the CFP attribute the deterioration to being solely the lack of information. Since the CFP is largely a policy depended on science, the system should make an incentive for obtaining the data and scientific information necessary to lead the policy.[1] In order to refrain from overlooking the deterioration of stocks when the data to backup the facts are not present, more emphasis should be put on the precautionary principle. They should be conservative with their policies even without thorough data to back it up, then conduct more research to confirm the problem.

Improving the implementation of the policy lies in all stakeholders being educated on the problem. Usually when there is an issue in the environment, one of the practices that can create a massive change is education. There can be a greater effort to educate the community on sustainable fish choices. Consumer habits can have monumental effects on supporting sustainable fishing. Additionally, large-scale fishing operations should be educated on measures they can take to improve their sustainability. One major way they can decrease their negative environmental impact is by increasing the mesh size on the net. In the recent revision, there has been a push to have a discard ban. Fishermen used to use a practice called discarding which was returning catches to the sea due to them being undersized, fishermen being over their quota, or to market demand.[17] This was a practice that was constantly enacted which was massively contributing to diminishing fish populations and fish mortality. However, by 2019 there is going to be a complete ban on this method.[17] After the ban, fishermen will have to keep the unwanted catch which is not profitable or will have to accept fines for being over their quota. By not being able to sell the undersized fish for human consumption, there is not an economic incentive to follow the discard ban. However, a simple way to help the problem lies in the fishermen’s gear selection. A study on a single-species fleet was performed and it was concluded that by using a larger mesh size of the fishing nets, gross revenues increased.[18] Additionally, there was a significant decrease in retaining smaller individuals that are not allowed to be sold. However it is to be noted, there was a slight decrease in efficiency. This shows that by using a larger mesh in fishing nets, fishermen can decrease their unwanted catch with an economic advantage. Therefore, educating all parties involved in the CFP will surely have a long-lasting effect on declining fish populations.

Based off of the analysis of remedial actions in the previous section, these are recommendations on what each of the groups involved in the CFP should do.

The governments comprising the European Union should continue to support small-scale fisheries through funding (directly and indirectly), giving them a greater allocation of the TAC, and giving them more political power.

The environmental NGOs should create programs for educating the consumer. They should also educate small-scale fisheries and large-scale fisheries on how they can improve the sustainability of their actions. In addition, they should continue to provide thorough and accurate research while emphasizing the precautionary principle.

Lobby groups for the fishing and fish-processing industry should attempt to change their methods from large-scale to small-scale fishing, or by encouraging large-scale fisheries to use more sustainable equipment such as a larger mesh net.

Finally consumers should remain educated on the issues of sustainability in our fisheries and make sustainable choices of which fish they decide to consume, specifically supporting their local small-scale fisheries.

With the central objective to provide among fishing communities a reliably equitable standard of living without compromising the diversity of the fishing industry, the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy presents many aspects of which should become an additional focus of the policy. A main deficit in the CFP manifests from a history of inadequate management, and insufficient involvement of stakeholders. Many groups or stakeholders such as governments comprising the EU, environmental NGO's, lobby groups and consumers could all apply their individual efforts in hopes of fostering a more efficacious outcome, on an increasingly long-term scale. With growing recommendations of progress to be made, it remains imperative to recognize the current initiatives being taken. Considering recent activity in the development of the CFP concerning the power structure of the EU, it is still uncertain whether an improvement in the effectiveness of the CFP in such a reform will be evident on a long-term basis. However, the 2013 reform to the Common Fisheries Policy does distribute hope for an improved policy.

  1. Peñas Lado, E. (2016). The Common Fisheries Policy: The Quest for Sustainability. Toronto, ON: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. doi:10.1002/9781119085676
  2. 2.02.1 Orach, K., Schluter, M., & Osterblom, H. (2013). Tracing a Pathway to Success: How Competing Interest Groups Influenced the 2013 EU Common Fisheries Policy Reform. Environmental Science & Policy, 76, 90-102.
  3. Wakefield, J. (2016). Reforming the Common Fisheries Policy. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
  4. Khalilian, S., Froese, R., Proelss, A., Requate, T. (2010). Designed for failure: A critique of the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union. Marine Policy, 34(6), 1178-1182.
  5. Black, R. (2010, May 4). “Profound” decline in fish stocks shown in UK records. Retrieved from
  6. Booker, C. (2007, November 25). Fishing quotas are an ecological catastrophe. Retrieved from
  7. Ruth, H.T., Brockington, S., Roberts, Callum M. (2010). The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on UK bottom trawl fisheries. Nature Communications, 1. Retrieved from
  8. Sissenwine, M., Symes, D. (2007). Reflections on the Common Fisheries Policy. EU Commissioned Report.
  9. Mangi, S.C. & Catchpole, T.L. (2014). Using discards not destined for human consumption. Environmental Conservation, 41(3), 290-301.
  10. 10.010.1 Kittinger, J. N., Finkbeiner, E. M., Ban, N. C., Broad, K., Carr, M. H., Cinner, J. E., . . . Crowder, L. B. (2013). Emerging frontiers in social-ecological systems research for sustainability of small-scale fisheries. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 5, 352-357. doi:
  11. European Commission (2016). Fishing quotas: Managing fisheries. Retrieved from
  12. 12.012.1 European Commission. (2015). The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Retrieved from
  13. Rijnsdorp, A. D., Bastardie, F., Bolam, S. G., Buhl-Mortensen, L., Eigaard, O. R., Hamon, K. G., . . . Zengin, M. (2015). Towards a framework for the quantitative assessment of trawling impact on the seabed and benthic ecosystem. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 73(suppl 1), i127-i138. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsv207
  14. 14.014.1 Canadian Environmental Law Association. (2017). The Precautionary Principle. Retrieved from
  15. Le Gallic, B., & Cox, A. (2005). An economic analysis of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing: Key drivers and possible solutions. Marine Policy, 30(6), 689-695. doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2005.09.008
  16. McDonald, G., Mangin, T., Thomas, L. R., & Costello, C. (2016). Designing and financing optimal enforcement for small-scale fisheries and dive tourism industries. Marine Policy, 67, 105-117. doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2016.02.003
  17. 17.017.1 European Commission. (2016). Discarding and the landing obligation. Retrieved from
  18. Prellezo, R., Carmona, I., Garcia, D., Arregi, L., Ruiz, J., & Onandia, I. (2017). Bioeconomic assessment of a change in fishing gear selectivity: the case of a single-species fleet affected by the landing obligation. Scientia Marina, 81(3), 371-380. doi:

Post image: .By Treehill, Augusta 89 via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 3.0