Fish dependence. The increasing reliance of the EU on fish from elsewhere

03 May 2011

EU citizens are consuming far more fish than European seas can produce, becoming increasingly dependent on seafood from other waters. If the EU were only to consume fish from its own waters, it would run-out of fish on July 8th, making it wholly dependent on fish from elsewhere from July 9th

European Union (EU) fish stocks are in an unprecedentedly poor state yet fish consumption throughout Europe remains high. The EU has been able to maintain and even expand its levels of consumption by sourcing fish from other regions of the globe, both through the catches of its distant-water fleet and imports. This report highlights Europe’s increasing reliance on fish products originating from external waters for its fish supplies, and provides pointers towards a more sustainable future for dwindling global fish stocks.

nef (the new economics foundation) has estimated the degree of ‘self-sufficiency’ in fish consumption achieved by the EU as a whole and for each of its Member States; self-sufficiency is defined as the capacity of EU Member States to meet demand for fish from their own waters. We have expressed the degree of self-sufficiency in the form of a ‘fish dependence day’. Based on a Member State’s or region’s total annual fish consumption, the fish dependency day is the date in the calendar when it would start to depend on fish from elsewhere because its own supplies were depleted.

For the EU as a whole this is now 2 July, indicating that one-half of fish consumed in the EU is sourced from non-EU waters. Last year it was 9 July, which indicates that there has been a further decline of almost 200,000 tonnes of fisheries products over 12 months. Since 2000, the EU’s fish dependence day has fallen earlier and earlier in the year and is now more than one month earlier than in 2000, revealing a continuously increasing level of fish dependence.

Of course, Member States with little or no access to EU waters, such as Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia, become fish dependent earlier in the year. Surprisingly, though, this is also the case for some Member States with greater access to EU waters. These include Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and France – all of whom source more than one-half of their fish from non-EU waters.

Our calculations include domestic aquaculture (fish farming) in EU countries, a growing enterprise that has served to marginally offset the overexploitation of EU fish stocks but has not halted or reversed the upward trend in fish dependence. If we discount aquaculture, the EU’s fish dependence day moves forward to 7 June; for big aquaculture producers such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece, their respective national fish dependence day would occur more than one month earlier.

In a context of finite resources and growing populations, the current EU model is unsustainable. The EU’s increasing fish dependence has implications for the sustainability of fish stocks globally, which are also overfished, and for the communities that depend on them.

The main message of this report is that rising fish consumption in a context of declining stocks is environmentally unviable and socially unfair. The EU has highly productive waters that have the potential to sustain a long-term and stable supply of fish, jobs and related social and economic benefits, but only if its fish resources are managed responsibly.

The reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) offers a perfect opportunity to put the structures in place to turn this situation around. To transform the management of the EU’s marine resources, the new CFP needs to provide a policy framework that will restore marine ecosystems to healthy levels and deliver a fair allocation of resources. At a minimum this will require the following actions.

©The New Economic Foundation

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