Since its founding, LIFE has lobbied constantly for Article 17 to be implemented as the way to achieve fair fisheries and environmental sustainability. It has been frustrating to see how legal weaknesses in the article and a lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities between the EC and MS have caused implementation of Article 17 to be put to one side. Article 17 provides the key to ensuring a fair allocation of fishing opportunities – access to both fishing grounds and fishing quotas – for SSF. The latest STECF report on Social Data in Fisheries (STECF 23-17), published at the end of 2023, analyses the responses of 22 Member States (i.e. all coastal EU states) to a questionnaire on implementation of Article 17. The report is useful in providing a historical overview of how fishing opportunities have been allocated in the EU, and why it has been such an issue to ensure that MS allocation systems use criteria that are both transparent and objective. STECF notes that “the pre-existing framework of fisheries administrations in member states, and their systems of distributing fishing opportunities, have proved to constitute an obstacle to the implementation of Art. 17, due to institutional inertia”. STECF also notes that “fishing opportunities are not clearly defined in EU legal texts”.
Institutional inertia, lack of legal clarity, lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and a lack of clearly defined criteria represent major constraints to achieving socially just, environmentally sustainable and economically viable fisheries. It could be said that in its current form, Article 17 is designed to fail. The challenge with Article 17 is therefore to design appropriate criteria of an environmental, social and economic nature, with clear guidelines on how to apply them, and clear roles and responsibilities assigned to the EC and Member States. The collection of social data has been a legal requirement since 2018, and STECF provided some preliminary analysis of Article 17 in their 2020 report (STECF 20-14), which provided some background on the development of Article 17 and the inclusion of social criteria. LIFE recalls on the Report “How EU fishing can become Low Environmental Impact, Low Carbon and Socially just” published in 2021 on which it already appoints potential environmental, social and economic criteria to be used.
The wheels of change turn slowly, and for SSF it’s a case of justice delayed being justice denied.