Exclusive: Q&A with Karmenu Vella

04 Feb 2015
Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries

Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries

In an exclusive interview with Jason Holland for World Fishing & Aquaculture, Karmenu Vella, the new EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries, discusses enforcement of the Common Fisheries Policy, the benefits of boosting EU aquaculture and much more.

Q: How do you aim to ensure that all member states become fully compliant with the measures contained within the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, and how will you help those member states that are not financially able to enforce the new regulations?

A: The credibility and success of the Common Fisheries Policy depend on the rules being applied and enforced properly. The reform of the CFP was a long time in the making but now is the time for implementation and making sure that it works in practice. That's why we're working hand in hand with all EU countries to make sure that the right control systems are in place and that compliance is prioritised.

The EU Control Regulation's ‘net to plate’ approach is the framework to achieving that. By looking at every aspect from how, when and where fish is caught we not only allow ourselves to trace products through the supply chain but we help to embed a culture of compliance at every step.

In more practical terms we also encourage close cooperation between EU countries and the European Fishery Control Agency, which carries out a lot of the control work. Finally, as a more dissuasive tool we seek to apply effective and proportionate sanctions for serious infringements to the rules as a disincentive to non-compliance. Those sorts of measures are a last resort and that's why there is €580 million ($666.1 million) of ring-fenced funding in the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) earmarked for member states' control expenditure.  

Q: What will be the main benefits of EU-wide compliance?

A: Quite simply, without compliance and effective controls we run the risk of the CFP not working for fish stocks, the environment, the fisherman or the consumer. Sustainability is at the heart of what the CFP is trying to do and making sure that the rules are applied properly is essential if we are to ensure the long-term environmental sustainability of EU fish stocks. Only through healthy fish stocks can we ensure a sustainable livelihood for the fishermen of today and tomorrow.

But it's also worth looking at this from the average EU citizen's perspective. How do you know the fish on your plate is sustainable? Was it caught legally? Only by insisting on compliance on boats, in ports, during transport, in processing factories and at the local fish market we can start offering the EU consumer some peace of mind and some certainty about what is on their plate. And that can only be good for business too.  

Q: For the first time, the new CFP contains the ambition to revive Europe’s stagnating aquaculture industry. While they can have access to EMFF funding, many producers say they struggle against red tape and getting new farms sites approved. How do you plan to help industry overcome these significant barriers?

A: Administrative burden is a barrier to growth which causes major uncertainties for investors. The red tape linked with transposing or applying EU and national legislation can sometimes add to that burden. That's why we have been working closely with EU countries to help them shape relevant aquaculture legislation and administrative procedures. The strategic guidelines which we issued in 2013 for that very purpose are already bearing fruit with a number of member states already enjoying reduced administrative burden.

Some countries are designing coordination structures to ensure smooth cooperation between national and regional level, whilst others are looking at building a permanent platform to ensure constant dialogue between public administration and the industry. We're also seeing some countries working on reducing the delays of registration for new farm sites whilst the establishment of a one-stop-shop for aquaculture licensing will remove more red tape for producers.

We very much welcome such initiatives and look forward to working with EU countries to provide them with good practice examples and a forum to exchange ideas and learn from each other. 

Q: The landing obligation came into force on 1 January for pelagic species. It will be extended to demersal fisheries in 2016 and be fully implemented across all TAC and quota species by 2019, but many fishermen remain in the dark about whether they can be properly implemented in the more complicated, mixed fisheries. How do you intend to alleviate their fears over the coming months?

A: The landing obligation entered into force this year for pelagics and for those affected we have issued clear guidance as to what the rules and responsibilities are. But the next phase, demersal fisheries, is approaching fast, so we absolutely need the kind of legal certainty that only a regulation can provide. That's why we are working hard with our colleagues at the Parliament and the Council to help them find an agreement on the so-called Omnibus, which would further clarify technical rules on the landing obligation. I am hopeful and confident that a technical and political agreement can be reached and that we can give legal and practical clarity for the fishermen affected. From our side we'll do whatever we can to make that happen. 

Q: Putting the landing obligation to one side, what are the other key tools and measures within the CFP that will contribute most to achieving a more sustainable and economically viable seafood industry in the EU?

A: The new CFP has an ambitious set of tools at its disposal to ensure sustainability and a profitable future for the industry. The central objective of fishing at maximum sustainable yield will bring more stability to the state of the stocks, and therewith improve the catch possibilities in the long run.

Stability is also important for the industry who otherwise could suffer from large variations in the amount of fish they can catch from one year to another. To make this stability happen, we are developing new multiannual management plans for the different EU regions. These plans are the vehicle for long-term management of stocks but they also allow for member states, industry and other local stakeholders to come up with the measures that best respond to the specific needs of their regions.

We're also looking at revising technical conservation measures, which have not been updated for more than 15 years. Not only are they partly outdated but they have also grown into a tangled and confusing web of rules and measures. We plan to simplify them, insert a results-based approach, and allow for the sort of regionalised approach I mentioned previously.

Finally, we have a financial instrument in the EMFF that will support strategic and innovative actions to help the European fleet in its efforts to achieve sustainability. Actions that help achieve more environmentally-friendly and selective fishing, including the reduction of unwanted catches, will be prioritised. We'll give special support to the large number of small-scale fisheries in the EU as they are economically more vulnerable than the other fleets. 

Q: Because of failings in certain fisheries, the Commission is looking to introduce a total ban on driftnets. This measure is of significant concern to those fisheries that do operate within current regulations and a number of MEPs have spoken out against such a ban. How will you ensure that the right decision is taken?

A: When we proposed a total ban on driftnets, we were looking to address persisting environmental and conservation problems related to their use. Our goal was also to close any possible loopholes to strengthen control and enforcement on illegal driftnetting. To get to that point we launched a wide public consultation, we conducted several studies, and we did a thorough impact assessment. At the time we didn’t get the detailed information about the use of driftnets and their impact on protected species. Since then, we have been able to get much more data and information and we have now have a more comprehensive view of the situation.

So what’s next? At my confirmation hearing in front of MEPs I promised to have an open mind about it and committed to finding a balanced solution. So we have got back in touch with member states and we have had several meetings with representatives of the most affected regional small-scale fisheries. I also went to speak to MEPs at the end of January to hear their views and concerns. For now it's up to the European Parliament and Council to work on the final text and we stand ready to facilitate those debates in any way we can. I remain confident that there is scope for improvement and for accommodating all the different concerns.  

Q: In many cases, scientific data is key to setting accurate catch quotas but in many EU fisheries there is no up-to-date research available. Do you intend addressing this long-term failing?

A: Reliable data is important for good decision-making and that's why we have a comprehensive EU framework for the collection and management of fisheries data. To help widen that knowledge base even further, the European Commission acts as a major facilitator and funder for data collection, scientific assessment work, and research in fisheries and aquaculture. The new CFP has increased the available financial support for data collection and advisory work.

We are in a continuous process of increasing our knowledge base and the number of up-to-date assessment of stocks. The number of stocks for which we receive full biological assessments and advice on fishing at maximum sustainable yield level is growing. We plan keep that curve going upwards in the coming years as part of CFP implementation. 

Q: The EU stepped up its efforts aimed at combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing throughout last year, issuing official warnings to a number of countries for not acting appropriately to encourage the sustainability of fisheries resources. Is the battle against IUU being won or have we merely scratched the surface?

A: We are in the fight against illegal fishing for the long term. We see this as a major world problem which depletes fish stocks, destroys marine habitats, distorts competition, threatens food security, puts honest fishers at an unfair disadvantage and weakens coastal communities in developing countries.

We have made a lot of progress already and it all starts from the very simple message that any illegally caught fish is not welcome in our market. We have cooperated with more than 40 third countries, pre-identified 17 countries and identified four as non-cooperating which means banning fish from those countries from entering the EU. But that's a last resort and we have also facilitated fundamental changes in fisheries management in many developing countries and helped them in their own fight against IUU. We have ensured high level of controls from our member states when it comes to importing fisheries products, convinced numerous countries to sanction IUU vessels and worked at a bilateral and international level to advance international cooperation and ocean governance to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal fishing.

But we're not resting on our laurels. How can we when the estimated global value of IUU fishing is approximately €10 billion ($11.5 billion) per year, accounting for more than 15% of the reported value of catches? So we'll carry on our work: working with our member states, working bilaterally with countries around the world, and leading the way internationally when it comes to ocean governance. Already this year I have been in close contact with my counterpart in the US and we are forging ever-closer links in the global fight against illegal fishing. 

Q: Two of your stated aims are to achieve “blue growth” and rebuilding fish stocks. How do you intend to deliver on both promises?

A: Sustainable fish stocks and a thriving blue economy are not mutually exclusive, in fact they are complementary. Over the next five years we will keep repeating our “more jobs and more growth” mantra because that's what Europe needs. But we'll also keep repeating words like sustainability, conservation, and biodiversity. They are a key part of our strategy because when we talk about jobs and growth we have to look at what we are surrounded by and see how we can best use our natural assets to our advantage. That's why I am delighted to be Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

We've already spoken about our focus on sustainable fisheries and all the various tools at our disposal in the new CFP to make that happen. I've also talked about how sustainable fisheries are a pre-requisite for the long-term economic sustainability of fishermen. But I want to just touch on Blue Growth as it is another subject close to my heart. As a former Minister for Tourism in Malta I know first-hand the potential the blue economy has and just how important it is for coastal communities across Europe.

A number of new and innovative maritime sectors, such as offshore energy or blue biotechnology, and more traditional sectors, such as tourism, aquaculture and fisheries, can be a major source of jobs. If you add all of that potential together, Blue Growth can create upwards of 1.4 million new jobs in Europe by 2020. But for that to happen we will need investment so our focus will be on creating those investment-conducive conditions by making sure that we know exactly what is going on in our seas and on our coasts, by ensuring they are safe and secure, and by playing our part in setting up a proper international ocean governance system. We have already taken the first steps towards doing that with our Maritime Spatial Planning directive, through our work in international fora on ocean governance, and by focusing on the sectors with the most potential like ocean energy, sustainable tourism, and aquaculture amongst others. I look forward to keeping up that momentum in 2015 and beyond.

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