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The EU COVID-19 response must foster sustainability to support fishing incomes and ecosystems ǀ View

Our relationship with nature is our link to life; and that link is under strain. The COVID-19 global pandemic demands emergency action from our political leaders to address the immediate health concerns and to cushion the economic impacts. Yet, such emergency action must be taken in the context of a wider plan for Europe’s future – guided by an ambitious European Green Deal and the EU Biodiversity Strategy – in order to avoid exacerbating the pre-existing climate and nature crises. We need to remedy the broken relationships that endanger our planet and deepen inequalities within our society.

The ocean is the source of all life on this planet – including bacteria that are used in tests to detect COVID-19 – yet we are putting it under relentless pressure and undermining its capacity to support life. By easing that pressure and restoring our oceans’ health, we can deliver enhanced resilience to the impacts of climate change, while safeguarding key natural elements that may equip us with countless more solutions to future and unexpected challenges.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused disruption in seafood supply chains, bringing temporary relief to some wild fish populations, but this should not be celebrated. Any environmental improvement has not come about due to a deliberate transition plan for fisheries workers, nor will any such respite prove lasting once the public health crisis passes. Improving the health of ocean ecosystems is clearly essential, and it needs to be done in a socially just manner.

The EU has numerous potential policies to support fisheries that it could employ in response to COVID-19 that would also have long-term benefits for the sector, and for the ecosystems on which it depends. For example, it could enhance remote electronic monitoring, by putting cameras on board instead of human observers, to ensure that essential data is collected and that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) does not undercut law-abiding fishers and the marine environment; and they could improve traceability to ensure that efforts to develop new, localised supply chains can support EU fishers and prevent IUU seafood from entering the supply chain, through digitisation.

Alternatively, some policies that have been publicly advocated for by elements of the EU fishing industry should be avoided as they fail to meet a series of principles. For example, the proposed rollover of 25% of this year’s fishing quotas to next year could worsen the existing climate and biodiversity crises, and the proposed VAT exemption does not address any specific COVID-19-related problems. However, governments should pursue existing flexibilities in the quota management system to allow fishers the opportunity to utilise their quota allocations, ensure that lost fishing income due to the COVID-19 public health crisis is compensated for through income support schemes, and condition any support for fixed business costs on improved environmental performance, such as the adoption of fishing gear that has a lower impact on ocean ecosystems

Fundamentally, the COVID-19 economic crisis is about incomes, costs and livelihoods. Improvements to incomes will be larger and longer-lasting if fish populations are allowed to replenish; if there are more fish in the sea then the subsequent fishing quotas would be larger. Fishing costs also decrease as more abundant fish populations would be harvested with less effort, while better prices can be secured by ending the “boom and bust” of quota-setting cycles and fish grow to larger sizes.

A path to “build back better” should invest in the marine environment, secure a more resilient labour model for marine fisheries, and shift financial support away from damaging subsidies, towards a system where the industry pays for the costs of management, for access to a limited public resource, and for environmental damages.

Critically, while COVID-19 response measures may offer support for one year, a sustainable marine environment will support livelihoods for years to come. The new EU Biodiversity Strategy acknowledges this, and emphasises the need for a just transition to low-impact fishing to restore ocean health. The big challenge now is to make this real; the EU needs to stop making decisions about short-term profits that further damage our life support system and undermine the future of coastal communities.

With the climate and biodiversity crises as the setting, all EU policy proposals need to answer the fundamental question: how does this policy allow us to “build back better”? To help answer this question, 12 international NGOs have published the briefing Setting the Right Safety Net: A Framework for Fisheries Support Policies in Response to COVID-19, as a framework for governments to assess whether fisheries support policies in response to COVID-19 will aid the path towards a healthier fishing sector, public and marine environment.

  • Rebecca Hubbard is the Program Director of Our Fish, an EU-wide campaign to end overfishing and restore a healthy ocean ecosystem.

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