Thursday 27th October 2016                 Change text size:

Finding the right balance between nature conservation and fisheries management – who will pull the strings?

Oktaviani Marvikasari via freeimages

While our oceans are under threat, important decisions must be made over the management of fisheries and Marine Protected Areas in European Seas, write Hanna Paulomäki and Magnus Eckeskog from marine conservation group Oceana. But will nature conservation directors have equal input to fisheries leaders, or will economic concerns prevail in talks held behind closed doors?

The seas of Europe are under great threat from pressures like pollution and overfishing. The current management systems in place visibly favor economic activities over nature conservation. Overfishing has led to a steady decline of commercial fish stocks in EU waters and human activities such as trawling, dredging and offshore oil exploration have taken their toll on marine habitats.

The designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is an efficient way to protect important marine species and habitats, by limiting human activities like fishing and other forms of exploitation. The main instrument in the EU to protect valuable ecosystems is called the Natura 2000 network. Unfortunately, there are very few examples where fisheries have actually been restricted in European MPAs, despite fishing being identified as one of the major threats to species and habitats.

Currently the procedures for developing fisheries restrictions inside Natura 2000 areas are being discussed among high level staff from the fisheries administrations in EU countries. The discussions are primarily taking part in the North Sea Scheveningen group and in a Baltic Sea discussion forum called BALTFISH. Denmark is taking the lead in both groups by drafting the proposals for the procedures for establishing management measures for fisheries within the Natura 2000 network.

The end result of the discussions in these groups will likely affect how this is dealt with in the rest of the EU, as Northern Europe is the forerunner of regionalisation of fisheries management under the Common Fisheries Policy.

It is a highly welcomed fact that authorities are finally starting to discuss management measures inside MPAs. However, it is worrying that most of the discussions on the matter occur behind closed doors, with little insight from the public and without the relevant nature conservation authorities who are responsible for ensuring adequate protection of marine species and habitats.

Our fear is that the authorities responsible for securing sustainable use of fisheries lack the necessary conservation expertise to determine what type of measures are needed in order to ensure the conservation and protection of marine species and habitats, as in practice, they are not responsible for implementing EU Environmental legislation.

We have been trying to follow the work of these groups. It has been increasingly difficult to get hold of the draft documents produced by the Danish Ministry for agriculture and fisheries, where the process describing the procedures for establishing fisheries in Natura 2000 areas is laid out. This is quite remarkable considering that Denmark has a rather good track record of consulting stakeholders when the management of Natura 2000 areas are discussed at the national level.

Nevertheless, according to the information that we have managed to receive, the proposals for fisheries measures will be approved by an expert group consisting of representatives of the High Level Group in the Scheveningen and the Baltfish cooperation, before presented to the European Commission. The High Level Group consists of representatives from the national fisheries administrations. As we have understood it will be left to the hands of the Member States to ensure that adequate environmental competence is being consulted throughout this process.

We know that the dialogue between the fisheries and environmental authorities is very well established in some countries, while in others it is very poor – some environmental ministries are even unaware that this process is taking place. We therefore feel that it is of importance to formally include environmental authorities in this process, as we otherwise fear that environmental protection will be deprioritised in favour of exploitation interests.

The newly established Juncker commission took a stand on this by nominating Karmenu Vella as the commissioner responsible for both fisheries and the environment. Our hope is that this will lead to better balanced work and coordination between the two areas, building upon the successful reformation of the Common Fisheries Policy, which recognises the centrality of the ecosystem-based approach to human activities. However, we fear that there will be an even stronger focus on economic development and that environmental protection and conservation will be given less priority.

Nature conservation and economic activities have to be dealt with in a more integrated manner, equally incorporating both Nature and Marine Directors and Fisheries Directors and measures need to be based on advice already developed at the EU level such as the European Habitats Forum, and should engage stakeholders such as NGOs and the fishing industry.

A way forward would be for Scheveningen and BALTFISH to be in better collaboration with working groups under the regional conventions set up to protect the marine environment, namely OSPAR for the North Sea and HELCOM for the Baltic Sea. Running parallel processes with counteracting goals is a waste of time for all parties involved, and will prohibit finding the best possible measures, and to achieve both economically and environmentally sustainable results.

Oceana is the largest international organisation focused solely on ocean conservation, with offices based around the world. Hanna Paulomäki is the project manager at Oceana’s Baltic Sea Office in Copenhagen, Denmark. Magnus Eckeskog is the policy advisor, also at Oceana’s Baltic Sea Office.

Photo: Oktaviani Marvikasari via freeimages

Further reading:

Scotland designates 30 new marine protected areas

EU looks to remove barriers for sustainable investment in ‘blue economy’

27 new marine conservation zones to be created around English coasts

Marine conservation could be worth ‘billions’ to UK economy

Scientists disappointed with government’s protection of seas

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