Dear President, Ministers,
I would like to thank the Presidency and the Member States for their preparatory work ahead of this Council meeting.
[Context – alarming state of the Baltic Sea ecosystem]
There is no denying that these are difficult times for fisheries in the Baltic Sea. The scientific advice for many fish stocks points to steep decreases in fishing opportunities. That is why the Commission had to propose reductions.
But we must also realise that fishing is not the only factor that affects the ecosystems of the Baltic Sea. Other human causes – eutrophication, nutrient pollution, hazardous substances, climate change and marine litter – are threatening the health of our marine life. And fishermen are paying the price.
The alarming situation of Baltic fish stocks and ecosystems concerns all of us. It is a concern for the environment. But it is also a concern for the many local communities whose livelihoods depend on keeping these ecosystems intact. If we do not address the root causes of this worrying situation, both nature and fishing businesses stand to lose.
The problems affecting the Baltic Sea are undoubtedly complex. They involve many different policy areas and sectors. But already have powerful tools to address them: the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Nitrates Directive, the Waters Framework Directive and the Waste Water Directive, to name just a few.
We need full and urgent implementation of these Directives. And we need joined-up action to find a remedy to the challenges the Baltic Sea faces. We all need to redouble our efforts and do our bit to turn this situation around.
I therefore urgently appeal to you to act now. Engage with your colleagues in charge of environment, agriculture, industry, finance and other policies and push your governments to take concrete actions now to protect the environment, and in particular to reduce industrial, urban and agricultural pollution.
The objective of this Council is clear: setting Baltic fishing opportunities at sustainable levels. For 2019 we achieved this for seven out of eight fully assessed stocks. This was an important achievement. And we need to continue down this road by implementing the Baltic multiannual plan and setting sustainable catch limits for 2020. Because we know – also from other sea basins like the North Sea – that conservation pays off also economically. Most Baltic fleets are now more profitable than five years ago. Sustainability and profitability go hand in hand.
However, the truth is that today some Baltic Sea stocks are in a very bad state and that we have to take difficult, but necessary decisions. If we do not and simply postpone these difficult decisions, we are also postponing the return to healthier stocks and to more stable fisheries.
This brings me to our concrete proposal. And let me go through the main stocks.
We have two fish stocks below the dangerous minimum level: western herring and eastern cod. For both stocks the Baltic plan obliges the Council to set fishing opportunities in the lower range of the scientific advice, and to take additional measures to rebuild these stocks. It is important that we apply those rules. I will get back to the Eastern cod later on.
Western cod is doing slightly better than last year, but is still far from safe. Moreover, the outlook is bleak, as very few young fish joined the stock in 2017 and 2018 – the worst years on record. Scientists have therefore explicitly advised us to set the catch limit at the lower end of the range.
For plaice, scientists have informed us that the bigger western plaice stock is 35% smaller than they originally thought. This also obliges us to reduce the fishing pressure.
For salmon, we propose a slight reduction of 5% for the main basin and a roll-over for the Gulf of Finland. Both stocks are fragile and our proposal is in line with the scientific advice.
The catch limit for Central Baltic herring was set at the upper limit of the scientific advice last year. The Baltic plan allowed us to do this because we also increased the catch limit for sprat, which is caught together with herring. This year this is no longer possible, because the sprat quota is also going down. We are therefore proposing the maximum sustainable yield point value.
Sprat relies on a single good year class, and scientists have revised the biomass downwards. The Commission’s proposal of -25% is therefore following this decline.
[Eastern Baltic cod]
Let me get back to the most difficult stock: eastern Baltic cod. After scientists warned that this stock is facing a complete collapse, the Commission was compelled to close this fishery in summer 2019 until the end of the year – the first ever such emergency closure in the Baltic Sea.
At the same time, we know that other fisheries, which may have by-catches of Eastern cod, need to continue. Therefore, for 2020, we propose limiting catches of cod to unavoidable by-catches only – the bare minimum if you will. Let me also clearly state that our proposal is only an estimate. We will receive the final scientific figures in November. If they differ from the amount set by this Council, the Commission intends to adapt the number accordingly, and I would expect the Council to follow the Commission's proposal.
We also propose several control provisions to ensure that fishermen comply with this approach. I understand that many of you find these measures difficult to implement in the short term. I am therefore ready to discuss with you how much time you would need.
In this context, I am aware that several Member States have pointed to the difficult socio-economic situation of their vessels. You have asked the Commission to reintroduce the possibility to permanently decommission vessels, to widen the scope for temporary cessation, or to make available additional financial means as flanking measures.
I stand ready to explore with the relevant Member States what possibilities exist under the existing EMFF provisions and also under other EU funds to address this difficult situation. I am also willing to consider possible additional initiatives, while taking into account the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy, the EMFF and the Baltic Multiannual Management Plan. We should endeavour to find long-term responses in a strategic manner, with all the available tools.
The Commission will also do the utmost possible to facilitate the upcoming negotiations on the future EMFF and find ways to develop appropriate support after 2020.
Let me however recall the contradictory position of some Member States. We have indeed seen requests to support for the construction of new and more powerful vessels in a clear situation of overcapacity from some of the same Member States that are now calling for support for permanent cessation.
Eastern cod sends a clear message: we are facing a critical situation in the Baltic Sea. The reasons for this are homemade. As I have said, the time has come to redouble our efforts to address the root causes of the alarming situation.
That is why, earlier this month, I have written to Ministers of the Baltic Sea Member States responsible for Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries, with an appeal to prepare action combatting industrial pollution and agricultural eutrophication and addressing other human influences that damage the Baltic Sea. I would appreciate if you could inform us on the concrete actions you intend to take to tackle these problems.
Today, we are clearly at a turning point. The decisions this Council will take are extremely important for the next few years. Let's not be mistaken: if we do not take bold decisions today, it is the people employed in the fishing and ancillary industry who will pay the price in the years to come.
I know that these decisions are difficult and they are painful for our fishing industry. But they are the right decisions if we want to turn the situation around, once and for all.
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