New European Maritime and Fisheries Fund

A Blue Revolution in the Making and a chance not to be missed for small-scale fishers!

Under the new EMFF proposal all Member States must submit an Action Plan for small scale coastal fishing as part of their national Operational Programmes. The Commission proposal also calls for small scale fisheries to be given “preferential treatment through a 100% aid intensity rate, including for operations related to control and enforcement, with the aim of encouraging sustainable fishing practices.”


Warsaw and Brussels, Monday 3rd of September 2018

Marcin Ruciński and Brian O’Riordan

The basics

This summer saw the publication of a very important legislative proposal by the European Commission: the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) Regulation covering the years 2021-2027. Whilst it will take a few years for its effects to be felt in practice, it is of fundamental importance to look into the possible consequences of the far-reaching changes proposed by the Commission in the architecture of the Fund and the concrete measures it will support.

Now is therefore the time for small scale fishers to engage in shaping the EMFF proposal to ensure that its potential to meet these needs is realized.

A total EU budget allocation for the EMFF is planned to be 6,14 billion euros. More than 80% of this money will be allocated to Member States for their national Operational Programmes, negotiated bilaterally with the Commission after the Regulation has been adopted. Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) is recognised as a key element of the new fund.

The negotiating timeline is planned to be much shorter than for the previous editions of the Fund – the Commission would like all the negotiations, including the most political ones on the overall money sharing between Member States, to be concluded at a summit in Sibiu, Romania, on 9 May 2019. The idea is to avoid implementation delays (the current EMFF was adopted as the last of EU’s Structural Funds), and the resulting potentially slow spending of the funds available in the first years after 2021. Given the looming impact of Brexit, the Fund is planned for the remaining 27 Member States, and the reduced budget takes into account the withdrawal of the UK’s contribution to the fund.

What’s in it for the small-scale fishers? Quite a lot in fact!

The Commission proposal includes an entire section devoted to small scale fisheries with two key articles on action plans and investments. As part of their national Operational Programmes ALL Member States must submit an action plan for small scale coastal fisheries. In the current Fund, this obligation applies to Member States with more than 1000 small-scale fishing boats and is very generally worded. Furthermore, The Commission proposal calls for small scale fisheries to be given “preferential treatment through a 100% aid intensity rate, including for operations related to control and enforcement, with the aim of encouraging sustainable fishing practices.”

Whilst today’s debates about implementing the reformed Common Fisheries Policy are full of praise for the economic results achieved by many segments in the large-scale part of the sector, way too little attention is given to the difficult economic situation of many small-scale fishing communities across Europe. Last October at a key conference in Tallinn[1], Commissioner Vella said that 53 out of 135 small-scale coastal fleets are loss-making. “Entire coastal communities risk devastating losses in income and jobs”, he said. The STECF’s 2017 Annual Economic Report also makes clear that the picture in this sector of the EU fleet is mixed at best. In the Baltic Sea for example, only the small-scale fleets in 2 Member States out of 8 were actually making net profits in 2015[2]. It is thus a good sign that, when preparing the proposal internally, the Commission has recognized the difficult economic situation of many small-scale fishing communities across Europe.

The central element of the Commission’s extended support for small-scale fishers is Article 15, requiring Member States to elaborate an action plan for the development of sustainable and profitable small-scale fishing. The plan needs to take into account the FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines for securing sustainable small-scale fisheries, as well as the GFCM regional plan of action for SSF in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. The elements of this plan are worth citing in extenso:

  • “adjustment and management of fishing capacity;
  • promotion of low-impact, climate resilient and low-carbon fishing practices that minimize damage to the marine environment;
  • reinforcement of the value chain of the sector and promotion of marketing strategies;
  • promotion of skills, knowledge, innovation and capacity building;
  • improvement of health, safety and working conditions on board fishing vessels;
  • increased compliance with data collection, traceability, monitoring, control and surveillance requirements;
  • involvement in the participatory management of the maritime space, including Marine Protected Areas and Natura 2000 areas;
  • diversification of activities in the broader sustainable blue economy;
  • collective organisation and participation in the decision-making and advisory processes.”

The fleet modernization measures, including the engine replacement support and the help to purchase a used boat for new entrant into fisheries, are restricted to small-scale fisheries as defined by the Fund, i.e. less than 12m length and not using mobile gears. The boat needs to belong to a fleet segment with a fishing capacity in balance with the available fishery resources.

The small-scale fishers are also privileged by a possibility for Member States to use increased aid-intensity rates, i.e the overall level of support for a given investment. In the case of investments under Article 15 detailed above, it can even be up to 100% of eligible expenditure.

Article 16 contains a special provision to support young (less than 40 years old) fishers to make their first vessel acquisition with funding levels of up to 75%, on the condition that the vessel is between 5 and 30 years old, and that the applicant has worked for at least five years as fisher or has acquired adequate vocational qualification. Whilst LIFE welcomes the intention of this provision, it must be noted that one of the main constraints for SSF to being profitable is lack access to resources. In the main, SSF have to fall back on non-quota species, with the lion’s share of quota species allocated to larger scale operations. Furthermore, the looming full application of the landing obligation on January 1, 2019 will have a major impact on SSF. Their lack of quota, especially for the “choke species” implies that either they will have to tie up and go bankrupt or put to sea and break the law.

LIFE therefore urges that grants for vessels and engine replacement for new entrants must be linked to access to quota, using the provisions of Article 17 of the 2014 CFP which call on MS to provide incentives to fishing vessels deploying selective fishing gear or using fishing techniques with reduced environmental impact, within the fishing opportunities allocated to them. There is a real danger that the zero-discard policy could well become a zero-fishing, zero-income policy for the SSF, unless there is some meaningful quota uplift provided for the sector.

Moreover, Articles 17 (permanent cessation of activities) and 18 (temporary cessation of activities) can be used only by vessels that have fished for at least 120 days for the last three years. This high threshold may be prohibitive for many small-scale fishers and should be lowered somewhat, especially for Article 18, which covers i.a. tie-ups due to natural disasters.

If properly implemented at Member State and regional level in both the spirit and letter of the proposal, there is the possibility to truly turn around the difficult situation and uncertain future of Europe’s small-scale fishing communities. Some small improvements can still be made to the language of Article 15, and LIFE will spare no effort to make the Regulation better still for European SSF.

However, the good funding rules alone will not heal the current situation completely. Much more needs to be done to genuinely implement the “class, not the mass” – quality not quantity – approach and so to enable SSF to benefit directly from the value addition they provide, as recommended by LIFE’s recently concluded pilot project in the Baltic and North Seas[3]. In particular, it is important to have a long, hard and critical look at the way the EU’s fisheries markets are organized, in relation to the way Producer Organizations are set up and run, and as regards market intelligence, and other specific needs of small-scale fishers to access markets and to benefit from value addition.

Some simplicity at last…but risks abound!

The prevailing and previous editions of the Fund provide a very long menu of support measures for Member States to choose from, described with a great degree of detail. They were often subject to complex and lengthy negotiations in Brussels, and with many interpretation questions and misunderstandings with Member States later, during the implementation phase. Crucially, the new Fund proposal by the Commission contains no measures – only a list in Article 13 detailing investments that cannot be financed. In adopting an “if it is not ineligible, it can be funded” approach, the Commission seeks to avoid the new EMFF proposal being prescriptive, and so to give flexibility to MS to use fisheries funds to suit their needs.

In this regard, although the new EMFF proposal makes no mention of women, and is gender neutral (the term “fisher” not fisherman is used throughout), women entrepreneurs and fishery workers may avail of financial aids thanks to the non-prescriptive approach of the proposal.

This fundamental change will surely make the negotiations and implementation of the Fund a lot easier for all involved. At the same time however, it opens a whole new territory, rife with risks for all the players in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors: the final shape of the Fund at national level will be decided by individual member states in negotiations with the Commission. This enormously raises the importance of consultations in respect of shaping each national Operational Programme, and for SSF to fully engage in such consultations.

The Commission will have limited influence on the choice of measures at Member State level. The fulfillment of the nice provisions in support of small-scale fishers’ communities contained in Article 15 and beyond will entirely depend on the capacity of small-scale representatives at national level to exert a proper and positive influence on how the national Operational Programmes are drafted. At LIFE, we are ready to assist our Members in taking up this challenge.

Some important elements will also be worked out at the level of the EU Regions. With paragraph 5 of Article 9, the Commission is planning to conduct Sea Basin Analyses, summarizing the main challenges to be responded to by national Operational Programmes. Whilst this approach is bound to be controversial for Member States used to freedom of programming in bilateral relations with the Commission, our Members, and other friends of small-scale fisheries active in Advisory Councils, will get a chance to comment on the Sea Basin Analyses in the coming months.

Another reason for concern is the Commission’s idea to open the CLLD method and the FLAGs beyond the fisheries sector and its related diversification activities. To date, significant investments in good, innovative projects have been made in this small-scale fisheries-friendly environment. In the post-2021 setup, all the Blue Economy participants will be entitled to influence the shape of local development strategies and the resulting measures.

At LIFE, we look at this new development with serious concern. It creates the risk of fisheries interests within the Local Action Groups being crowded out by the financially stronger and privileged Blue Growth interests such as –aquaculture, tourism and marine energy generation players for example. We have written about this risk before[4], and will continue calling for the FLAGs and Farnet to remain primarily fisheries-oriented bodies.

What’s lying ahead

Even if 2021 may look like a date far away from today’s realities, the future of the Commission proposal – and with it the highly positive measures directed towards small-scale fishers – is being decided now. The technical-level negotiations in the Council, as well as first preparations in the European Parliament have already started. Some elements of the extended support for small-scale fisheries will not be accepted easily by larger-scale fishers and national administrations used to the freedom of programming.

There are many other interests around us, within the broadly understood fisheries sector and beyond. Many of them have grown to today’s strength largely thanks to the intensive use of EU funds for fisheries in the past. It is high time that small-scale fishers truly become one of the main beneficiaries of these funds, to safeguard and brighten the future for the 80% of EU fishing fleet that is small scale and who employ over 50% of the workforce, as well as thousands of directly and indirectly dependent jobs for both men and women all along the value chain.

But we must be aware: this will not happen on its own. Without our intensive and merits-based involvement in the upcoming EMFF debates and negotiations, the good things contained in the Commission proposal risk being lost or, at best, watered down and weakened – both in Brussels now and later at national level.

Whether we like it or not, money is both mover and shaker in world affairs. EU funds for fisheries are no exemption. For too long it has, for the most part, been flowing the way of those financially strongest and most capable of successfully lobbying authorities at all levels in favour of their needs. Since the inception of the CFP in 1983, small-scale fishers have been outsiders. We simply cannot afford to miss the chances offered by this new, potentially revolutionary Commission proposal.

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[2], page 133 and Table 4.17.