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Why does the EU need to manage fish stocks?

Europe's fish stocks do not have unlimited reproductive capacity. Without some control over who fishes what, some fish stocks may collapse or stop being economically viable to catch. The EU's fisheries management system: 

  • helps safeguard fish stock reproduction
  • prepares the conditions for a profitable fishing industry
  • shares out fishing opportunities
  • plays a key role in preserving the marine ecosystem

How does the EU fisheries management system work?

Most important fish stocks and fisheries are managed at EU level, through multiannual plans and annual catch limits

Key terms

TACs or fishing opportunities - total allowable catches, the maximum quantities of fish from specific stocks that can be caught (expressed in tonnes or numbers)

maximum sustainable yield - the largest catch that can be taken from a species' stock to maintain the size of the population 

discards - unwanted catches which are returned to the sea and often die

Each multiannual plan contains goals for fish stock management and may also include other specific conservation rules. Since the new fisheries policy came into effect on 1 January 2014, new multiannual plans will have to include a maximum sustainable yield target and a deadline for achieving this target.

The EU also sets annual catch limits for most commercial fish stocks. These are also called total allowable catches (TACs) or fishing opportunities. Each TAC is shared among the EU member states through national quotas. Individual member states are responsible for ensuring that their quotas are not overfished.

For fish stocks that are shared and jointly managed with non-EU countries, the TACs agreed at EU level have to be in line with the results of recurring consultations with those non-EU countries. These consultations are based on international agreements on cooperation in fisheries management.

International agreements are an important part of fisheries management in the EU. Two main types of international fisheries agreements are bilateral agreements and multilateral agreements.

Decisions concerning fisheries management can be taken not only by EU institutions in Brussels but also by national authorities, which cooperate among themselves at the level of the regional sea basin. The aim of regionalisation is to ensure that the technical rules are adequate and set for the individual sea areas. The representatives of fishermen and of regional administrations also work on specific measures to prevent unwanted catches (discards).

In the Council

The Council plays an important role in the management of EU fish stocks. The Council's responsibilities include fixing total allowable catches (TACs) and allocating fishing opportunities (article 43, Treaty on the Functioning of the EU). The Council takes its decisions on the basis of proposals from the European Commission.

In practical terms, this means that every year the Council adopts the revised TACs and quotas for each fish stock. This takes the form of a regulation which is adopted towards the end of the preceding year and updated as necessary throughout the year. The TACs and quotas for 2015 were adopted on 15 and 16 December 2014. The TACs and quotas for 2016 are expected to be adopted in December 2015.

Regarding international fisheries agreements, the Council is responsible for providing the mandate for negotiations, for signing agreements on behalf of the EU and for adopting the final decision implementing agreements into EU law. The Council also provides the negotiating mandate to the Commission when it represents the EU in the various regional fisheries management organisations the EU is a member of.