In the shadow of Brexit and COVID-19, Portugal and the EU make progress to end overfishing, falling short of legal and environmental commitments

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This morning, negotiations ended at the European Council of Ministers of Agriculture and Fisheries (AGRIFISH), the meeting at the end of the year where fishing quotas for the European Union (EU) for the following year are usually decided. In a year conditioned by the pandemic caused by COVID-19 and the still uncertain outcome of the Brexit negotiations, several important quotas for Portugal were defined, some of them above the levels recommended by science, which jeopardizes the health of marine ecosystems and sustainability fisheries that depend on them.

Despite the procedural uncertainties that guided the negotiations, with regard to the important quotas for Portugal, these ended up not being greatly affected, since among the approximately 30 Total Allowable Catches (TACs) that are managed exclusively by the EU, there are several of great importance for Portugal, such as hake, plaice, sole, horse mackerel, swordfish, monkfish or sea bream. Although the final figures are not known yet, it appears that several TACs were set above what was recommended by scientific advice.
The Portuguese Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations had already congratulated the European Commission (EC) for their TAC proposals in line with the scientific advice for the stocks in which Portugal has interest. This is, moreover, a requirement of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which is also expressed in the United Nations Agreement on Fish Populations (UNFSA), of which both the UK and Norway are signatories, which is the matrix in which the CFP was inspired to define the objectives of fisheries management. But unfortunately, the Council decided to set some TACs above the EC proposal.
PONG-Pesca‘s representatives, in addition to regretting the usual and continuing lack of transparency and the resistance of political decision-makers to share relevant information with civil society, recall that the fact that there are fewer quotas to be discussed in this Council did not minimize the European governments’ responsibility for ensuring science-based decisions. If the preliminary results are confirmed, despite some progress, it seems clear that the EU has once again failed its legal commitment to end overfishing, in stocks it had the exclusive possibility and responsibility to do so. In addition to putting stocks and sustainability at risk in the medium and long term of the fishing communities that depend on them, the decisions now taken ignore the urgency of combating the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis, two of the great environmental challenges of our times and for which the maintenance of the good state of the ocean ecosystem is fundamental.
However, with fisheries occupying a central place in Brexit discussions, a large part of the quotas remained to be decided, precisely because they were shared with the UK, having been postponed until 2021, when, hopefully, there will be more clarity about the future of EU-UK relations. This is particularly relevant for Portugal, since it will preside over the Council of the EU in the first half of 2021, making this a concrete opportunity for the country to assume the leadership role that it seems to want to have with regard to the oceans, at European level and even global. Finally, and to complement this situation, earlier this month, the Prime Minister signed and supported the Ocean Panel’s manifesto which, among many other things, ambitiously challenges all governments to sustainably manage 100% of their Exclusive Economic Zones until 2025. This is, therefore, the ideal time to move from words to deeds.

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