Rhein on Energy and Climate

Overfishing of the seas has become a global issue.

Traditionally fish has been a common good like fresh water or air to which everybody had free access, without any restrictions or payments.

But as the demand for fish increased in the course of the 20th century, due to growing numbers of people able to afford fish food, and fishing techniques allowed more effective fishing, overfishing became common for most species in all major fishing grounds.

The EU has very early started to address the issue within its waters, though with only limited success. Since the 1980s it has negotiated fishing rights with neighbouring countries to alleviate the lack of domestic fish resources. Quite naturally the EU accepted to pay for these fishing rights, sometimes substantial amounts, to which the fishing industry contributed nothing or very modest amounts.

But within EU waters, fishing has remained gratis until this very day. The EU depends exclusively on annual fishing quotas, established on the basis of scientific advice, to contain fishing within sustainable limits.

The Green Paper on the future of the EU fishing policy considers for the first time allowing fishing quotas being traded, which would create more flexibility in quotas.

But the EU should go one step further and consider auctioning of fishing rights. This approach, which is being applied successfully to C02 emissions, would have several important advantages.

· Establish a market for fishing rights for the major fish species that would reflect the relative scarcity of different species.

· Induce less competitive fishermen to abandon fishing and thereby contribute to the overdue consolidation of the industry.

· Provide revenues to the EU, which could be used for adjustment payments to fishermen leaving the industry.

· End to the fierce disputes between member states about higher fishing quotas. When fishing rights are auctioned they lose their political interest. Every fisherman can buy as many as he wants to, subject to competition rules. Fishing rights therefore need no longer be distributed among member states. The Commission would fix them for the major endangered species on the basis of advice from the EU scientific committee. Coastal fishing within the 12 miles zone would remain limited national fishing boats and not be subject to any fishing rights

Auctioning would not address the issue of non-compliance. On the contrary, when fishing rights cost money, the incentive to disregard quotas might even grow. Monitoring of compliance will therefore remains crucial and should become the exclusive responsibility of the Commission. Auctioning will facilitate this task as the number of fishing boats is likely to decrease

The idea of auctioning fishing rights will raise an outcry with the European fishing industry. It will argue that auctioning will constitute a competitive handicap against imported fish that is not subject to auctioning procedures.

To address this objection the EU should raise its import protection, at least as long as other fishing countries fail to also introduce auctioning procedures or levies on fish catches. But hopeful, the EU example will find followers.

The EU also would have to ensure that fishing rights may only be acquired by EU fishermen or fishing companies.

Brussels, 25.04 09 Eberhard Rhein

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