EU top Court goes down-to-earth on overfishing rules

Brussels: Contrary to usual practice, the EU Court of Justice overturned the advice of its Advocate General, whose legal reasoning had backed NGOs calling for restricting the flexibility for ministers in the EU’s annual regulation on fishing quotas.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that member states were compliant with the bloc’s rules, which was not quite satisfactory for environmental activists.

According to non-profit organisation ClientEarth, the ruling is “disappointing” but “provides clarity – going forward, approving overfishing for target stocks is illegal”.

If the Court had followed the opinion of the Advocate General, it would have set a precedent and declared invalid the fishing limits for all fish stocks “from 2020” as they are unsustainable, the NGO underlined.

“We will be closely following the EU fishing limits that ministers set going forward. We will continue to take action as long as leaders violate ecosystems and their own promises”, ClientEarth marine wildlife and habitats lawyer Arthur Meeus stated.

The ruling and its importance were also mentioned by Spanish Agriculture Minister Luis Planas during the December negotiations on this year’s fishing quota regulations, published today in the Official Journal of the EU.

At the time, Planas referred to the ruling as “most important” for knowing “the room for manoeuvre in setting TACs [total allowable catches] and quotas”.

Every year the Council sets fishing quotas for EU waters. According to the EU rules, the Council must follow scientific advice in their decisions.

In 2020, the scientific advice was that the fishing quotas for, among others, cod, whiting and plaice should have been set at zero.

Despite that, the Council decided to set fishing quotas for those species at levels higher than zero, as these stocks might be caught as unavoidable ‘by-catches’.

The Irish NGO Friends of the Irish Environment contested the member states’ 2020 decision in a national court, questioning the validity of the 2020 Council Regulation.

In her opinion, Advocate General Tamara Capeta said the Council went beyond its discretionary power as its decision breached the legal deadline to end overfishing by 2020 in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Thus, Capeta called on the Court to declare the regulation partially invalid.

The EU judges overturned that advice, reaffirming the wide discretion granted by EU rules to the Council when it makes decisions on the fishing opportunities and their distribution among the member states.

According to the Court, limitations in question were set at a level that was not disproportionate in order to reconcile the objective of maintaining mixed fisheries with that of restoring the good biological status of the stocks concerned.