Ministers, Secretaries of State, Colleagues, welcome to Brussels, and thank you for joining me here today.
I am sure that many of you, like me, were at the Seafood Expo Global earlier today. It is truly an impressive seafood fair – the world's biggest I am told.
And I think, when you talk to the exhibitors there – and I am sure you have similar conversations in your own countries –, you realise that the Mediterranean fishing industry is experiencing considerable anxiety.
Profits are shrinking. Production is stagnating or declining. We all know that fishing in the Mediterranean is often a small-scale family business. Today, many fishermen are asking themselves whether their children still have a future in that business. Not to mention serious concerns on food security and the additional instability to the region this brings along.
Against this backdrop, I very much believe that our starting point must be to acknowledge that behind all of our initiatives, there is a very real motivation to secure and improve human wellbeing. Let us not lose focus of this in our discussions.
We need to reverse the trend. And I am convinced that achieving sustainable fisheries is the best way of doing so.
That is why I was at Seafood Expo Global earlier today: to launch "MedFish4Ever", a new campaign for sustainable fisheries in the Mediterranean.
And that is why I invited you here this afternoon. I want to trigger renewed and deeper cooperation, right around the Mediterranean sea basin.
Of course, we are not starting from scratch. In 2003 in Venice, Mediterranean Fisheries Ministers adopted a declaration to promote the sustainable development of fisheries.
Today, I would like us to discuss two questions: First, what have we achieved since Venice? And secondly, what remains to be done?
If I look at what we have achieved, the progress is undeniable. We have agreed management measures on important stocks. The number of fisheries protection zones has increased. EU countries alone have put in place a total of 42 national management plans.
Yet despite these and many other measures, the situation today is even more critical than in 2003.
Today, over 90% of the fish stocks assessed are over-exploited. This includes the species of most value to our fishing industries.
In several areas, long-lived species and bigger specimens have practically disappeared placing increasing pressure on our small-scale fishermen to resort to fishing less profitable and smaller species.
On average, Mediterranean stocks are fished at more than three times the level of maximum sustainable yield.
This uncalculated use of our resources is coming back to haunt our own fishing industry. As stocks erode, fishermen are catching less and less. Ever since the mid- 90's, production is going down. Jobs are disappearing. Fishermen and coastal economies are already feeling the pain. They are trapped in a vicious circle: they are working harder but earning less. And the less they earn, the more they fish.
Let us however not just talk about overfishing – for we cannot expect our fishermen to simply walk away from their daily bread and butter. What we should talk about, is the need for greater collective management of our common resource to ensure future prosperity.
I see no other way around our common challenge: a race to the bottom, can only mean that we will sink together – but through building trust and joint solutions, we can provide certainly and security.
There are solutions. The collapse of stocks and the decline of fisheries activities is not unavoidable. And as experience shows: where we have a common interest and a will, we have been very capable of joining our forces together.
Take the outstanding recovery of Bluefin tuna. Fishermen who were questioning the recovery plan yesterday are now praising its effects today. Nevertheless, even with this success, I still feel we have a sense of responsibility to ensure fairer distribution of the rewards amongst those that have made sacrifices but yet continue to face mounting pressures.
Turning to our institutions. Through the GFCM and ICCAT we have built a robust framework of cooperation for more than half a century, giving us a solid basis to bring us ever closer together at political level. Let us make the most of this remarkable opportunity to set ourselves a new standard and way of working as Mediterranean leaders.
This brings me to the second question that I would like to discuss with you today: what remains to be done?
Of course, I have a few thoughts of my own. Let me share the five that I find most important:
First, I think we need to act on key species.
Since our capacities are limited, we must focus our efforts on the most exploited species that have the biggest socio-economic value.
For these crucial stocks we need to take all measures necessary to allow them to recover.
We need to better manage those fisheries by enhancing technical measures and by setting catch volumes and limits. We need to improve enforcement and our fight against IUU fishing.
And we need to strengthen data collection and scientific cooperation, and better monitor the impacts of bycatch and recreational fisheries.
Second, we need to act across various levels and time horizons.
It is very clear that no single country or organisation can redress the situation single-handedly. Instead, fish stocks have to be managed through a combination of national, bilateral, European and international initiatives.
Action at national and bilateral level is crucial, bearing in mind that small-scale fisheries operating close to the coast account for 80 percent of vessels.
At EU level, we are currently working on a discard plan for the Mediterranean. We are also preparing proposals for multiannual management plans in the Adriatic and Western Mediterranean.
And at international level, I am convinced that we should use the next GFCM and ICCAT meetings to table ambitious proposals, for example on Mediterranean swordfish.
Third, we must show solidarity across the Mediterranean.
Countries around the Mediterranean have variable capabilities to monitor their waters and enforce fisheries regulation. The European Union is ready to help countries that ask for support in the field of fisheries management.
Fourth, we need to pay close attention to the socio-economic impacts of conservation measures.
Wherever we adopt new measures, we must anticipate their economic impact. We must find out which fishermen will be affected to which extent, and whether an alternative short-term solution can be found. We also need to clarify whether, in the longer term, those same fishermen or others will be the ones to benefit from the improved marine environment.
All this implies increasing the quality and coverage of the economic data we collect.
In this context, small-scale fisheries deserve specific attention. They employ at least 60 percent of fishermen and represent about 25 percent of total landings. Provided that best practices become the norm, small-scale fisheries represent an operating model that can maximise social and economic benefits while minimising the ecological impacts of fishing.
And fifth and finally, I would like to offer you the continued support of my services which remain at your disposal to make best use of EU funds. In particular, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and the European Neighbourhood Instrument offer many funding opportunities to help us respond to our challenges.
Prioritisiation at national level remains a crucial step in order that we can help our fishermen effectively. I believe there are real opportunities to invest in blue economy and capitalise on a sustainable fisheries sector, including options of "transiting" into areas such as coastal and maritime tourism as well as aquaculture.
It is up to each one of us to make sure that available funding opportunities are used for the benefit of the fisheries sectors in our countries and regions. And I know that in this respect we can also count on the support of the colleagues in FAO and GFCM.
For millennia, the Mediterranean has been our common good, linking countries and cultures, and providing coastal populations with a way to earn their living. Today, no less than 220 000 people are employed aboard fishing vessels in the region. They are asking us to safeguard their future. Will we fail them? Or will we assume our collective responsibility and heed their call?
I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts. Where do we stand today, 13 years after Venice? And where do you see scope for further action?
To answer these questions, I now propose to move to our roundtable session.
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