Nature in the Balance: EU’s Nature Restoration Bill hangs by a thread

Nature in the Balance: EU’s Nature Restoration Bill hangs by a thread

On the occasion of World Ocean’s Day, the Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE Platform) call for an ambitious European Nature Restauration Law.

Halting the deterioration of our ecosystems and restoring their health together with the decarbonization of our economy to prevent further global warming are two of the principal existential challenges facing the human race.

In June 2022, the European Commission (EC) tabled an ambitious proposal for a Nature Restoration Law. This seeks to put in place effective and area-based restoration measures on at least 20% of the EU’s inland and marine areas by 2030, and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. However, European Parliamentarians (MEPs) on the Agriculture and Fisheries Committees voted to reject the proposal.

It now remains for MEPs on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee to vote whether or not to adopt a proposal to adopt the EC proposal with amendments. If they fail to do so, the Nature Restoration proposal will be dropped until the next session of Parliament in 2024, following elections and under a new Commission.

The ENVI vote will take place next week, on June 15. In the meantime, the Nature Law proposal hangs in the balance. We urge the ENVI Committee to vote in favour of adopting it next week.

Fisheries play a vital role in feeding the world and providing livelihoods, as well as forming the basis for significant socio-economic activity and wealth creation. However, the dominant EU fishing model is based on the intensive industrial extraction of high volumes of fish, with a high environmental impact, heavily dependent on fossil fuels and contributing to global warming. Fishing can also impact the seabed and habitats, the food chain and marine biodiversity, reduce the resilience of marine ecosystems, distort predator-prey relations, and disrupt carbon sequestration. Abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gears (ALDFG) have a significant, but unknown, impact on our ocean and the life within it.

These negative impacts must be addressed as a matter of some urgency. A Special Court of Auditors Report on the Marine Environment in 2020 (EU protection is wide but not deep) found that EU action has not led to the recovery of significant marine ecosystems and habitats. Its framework to protect the marine environment is not deep enough to restore seas to good environmental condition, while EU funds rarely support the conservation of marine species and habitats. The auditors found that marine protected areas (MPAs) provide limited real protection, while overfishing persists, particularly in the Mediterranean.

“The loss of healthy marine habitats, together with overfishing, pollution and climate change, puts the foundations of our economic activity and our livelihoods at risk. We need to reverse this through marine restoration programmes, and small-scale low impact fishing is part of the solution” says Marta Cavallé, LIFE’s Executive Secretary. “Over decades the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has promoted high volume intensive fishing operations, to the detriment of fish stocks and the marine environment. There is a need to rethink the current EU fisheries model and to devise a strategy that shifts us away from high volume, high impact fishing to low impact fishing.”

In fact, small-scale fisheries in Europe provide the lion’s share of jobs at sea in fishing, with over 70% of the fleet. However, due to historical injustices, they are only allocated 5% of the catch.

For LIFE, the process of locating area-based restoration measures, setting conservation and restoration objectives and deciding on how they should be managed must involve the inclusive representation of all segments of the fisheries sector.

“A co-management approach is vital to the success of an effective Nature Restoration Law. LIFE applauds the work of Deputy Aguilera and the Pech Committee of the European Parliament in adopting a Resolution on Co-management. This rightly calls for participatory structures and a multidisciplinary committee with a minimum of stakeholders representing all interested parties in the management of a fishing area to be established at the most appropriate level, and for the knowledge and empirical data that fishers gather from their environment to be better taken into account”, says Cavallé.

Area-based restoration measures could provide the basis too for thriving inshore coastal fishing activities, by securing wider inshore fishing areas reserved for small-scale low impact fishing, effectively managed through adaptive local co-management regimes in which small-scale fishers are supported to participate effectively.

In parallel, a reappraisal of the EC’s approach to applying the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) principle to managing fish stocks is required.

According to Christian Tsangarides, LIFE’s Coordinator for the Baltic and North Sea: “Increasingly, scientific evidence indicates that the EC approach to MSY-based management of stocks is the cause of undesired scenarios: weakening of fish populations and impairing the ability of smaller and more juvenile fish to face growing challenges such as disease, ocean warming, eutrophication and intensive fisheries. This is because biomass output has been prioritised over well-structured fish populations, with perverse effects on fish stocks and to our fishing communities”

It is necessary to look at alternative tools for stock assessment in multispecies fisheries and advice that can complement the MSY approach. Alternative management objectives avoiding maximisation of yields could lead to more desirable outcomes in terms of larger spawning stock biomass and age structure of fish populations, with little overall costs to long-term catch and lower energy usage/fishing effort.

Small-scale low impact fishing could also play a vital role in restoring the health of European seas, particularly if provided with fair access to fishing grounds and resources. The application of Article 17 to incentivise good fishing practices should form part of the nature restoration strategy, by allocating fishing opportunities to those who fish in the least destructive manner.

Such an approach is needed to ensure the long-term sustained recovery of European seas, and the sustainable provision of seafood.