EU Commission opens an infringement procedure against France for not controlling its international fishing fleet

Date: 11 June 2021

The EU Fisheries Control Coalition welcomes the Commission’s decision to open an infringement procedure against France for not controlling its international fishing fleet, and calls on the Council to not legalise misreporting of catches.

On Wednesday 9th June, the European Commission announced the launch of an infringement procedure against France regarding the compliance of its fleet with EU rules to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and to control fishing activities. More specifically, the Commission indicated that “France has failed to ensure monitoring and control of the French external fishing fleet and the enforcement of rules on the catch reporting i.e. the so-called margin of tolerance of 10% per individual fish species and the submission of sales notes within 48 hours after first sale and of logbook and landing declarations”

The margin of tolerance (MoT) referred to in the infringement procedure is a key element of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation, which is currently being revised. Indeed, the Control Regulation sets out rules about counting the fish that are removed from the sea by EU vessels, to ensure that fishing catch limits are respected and that no fish illegally caught can make its way to the markets. To do so, the system relies on two figures:

  • The at-sea estimate of the catch. This number is an estimation, registered in the logbook of a  fishing vessel by its captain, of the quantities of fish on board. As it is not always possible to accurately estimate the weight of the fish on board, the captain is allowed a margin of tolerance of 10% per species. Surpassing the 10% tolerance margin is a serious infringement under EU law and can lead to sanctions such as fines, penalty points or, eventually, suspension of the fishing licence. The logbook estimates are transmitted to the fisheries control authorities of the Member State on a regular basis, to monitor catch limit uptake on a near real-time basis and can be the basis of a decision to close a fishery if limits are reached;
  • The weight of the catch at landing. After catch estimates are recorded in the logbook, the fish are – in theory at least – weighed at landing. This more accurate figure is then used to calculate final catch limit uptakes in the landing declaration, and is used by scientists for their stock assessments, upon which quota decisions are made by decision-makers. However, most landing declarations are filled in without the presence of authorities to verify the weight.

The figures from this  weighing procedure are not always reliable, as shown by two infringement procedures recently opened by the European Commission against Belgium and the Netherlands for issues related to their weighing system. Often, it is the estimate in the logbook which ends up being the only figure used throughout the supply chain and for control purposes. In the absence of reliable weighing procedures within landing systems, it is therefore key to get the estimates in the logbook as close to reality as possible.

Illegal exemption for French tuna fleet

The 10% MoT rule was introduced in 2009, and has been a key driver for the recovery of EU fish stocks in the last decade. This rule, however, was never implemented by the French tuna industry fishing in the Indian Ocean. Instead of a 10% MoT per species, they decided to use a 10% MoT for all the catches on board the fishing vessel. That means that, when landing e.g. 1000kg of yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna, the fisher will be allowed to report 100kg of yellowfin and 900kg of bigeye tuna even if the real proportion was the opposite. There are catch limits on yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean, an overfished stock in critical status. The decision to allow a 10% MoT on total catching allows vessels to underreport yellowfin tuna, and declare more catches of other tuna species. 

This practice from the tuna industry has been authorised by the French government through a circulaire adopted in 2015. This is illegal, as there is nothing in the current EU rules which allows a Member State to grant such derogation to its industry. 

(Read here a briefing on “The EU purse seine fleet in the Indian Ocean: Legalising the misreporting of catches must not be the solution to a technical problem”)

Reform of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation, the Parliament vote

The reform of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation has been ongoing since 2018, when the European Commission launched its reform. It did not suggest any changes to the MoT rules, but imposed stricter rules regarding weighing on landing. Because of the European Parliament election the negotiations were delayed but the European Parliament voted on its position in March 2021 and the Ministers are expected to reach a position on June 28. 

Ahead of the vote in the European Parliament, both the French government and its tropical tuna industry heavily lobbied Members of the European Parliament to get an amendment adopted which would legalise an MoT of 10% for all catches on board for the French tuna fishers, as opposed to the current MoT of 10% for species. Public statements and advocacy letters asking MEPs to amend current rules reflecting the (illegal) French circulaire decision from 2015 were circulated, and in the end, the plenary vote of the European Parliament voted to adopt the proposal. 

Ministers of Member States to vote on June 28

EU Member States are currently negotiating their position on the MoT. The latest proposal would allow to change from 10% MoT per species to a 10% MoT for total catch for the following fisheries:

  • small pelagics that are landed unsorted (such as herring, mackerel, anchovy or sardines)
  • fisheries for industrial purposes (such as sprat or herring)
  • fisheries that target species that are morphologically similar (such as young specimens of yellowfin and bigeye tuna, according to some scientific reports)
  • mixed fisheries that are landed unsorted (such as tuna)

It is worth noting that these changes would exclude most fisheries that fish for species that live close to the seabed and use trawl nets, who would need to keep reporting 10% per species, undermining the level playing field for fishers from Member States with a large trawl fleet.

If this proposal is adopted, it could result in gross underreporting of catches of individual fish species, and lead to large amounts of EU catches being omitted from the EU fleet’s records. This would undermine scientific data to evaluate the status of EU and international fish populations and render fisheries control efforts ineffective. 

For the tuna fisheries,and this France and Spain in particular, this proposal could lead to significant underreporting of their tuna catches by the EU fishing industry, and threaten not only the sustainability of stocks already in poor shape, but also food security for local communities in Western Africa and in the Indian Ocean.

Call on Ministers ahead of June vote

The EU Fisheries Control Coalition therefore welcomes the Commission’s decision to take action against the illegal derogation granted by France to its industry, and calls on EU decision-makers to not legalise misreporting of catches and to ensure that an MoT of 10% per species is retained in the revised Control Regulation. To do otherwise would undermine all the positive efforts made by the EU and its fleet over the past decade to manage fisheries sustainably, as well as the objectives of the European Green Deal and the global 2030 Agenda.