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22 February 2023

Russian war almost bankrupts EU fishing – looking for a fix

Anyone not used to EU regulations around farming and fishing will completely fail to understand how emotive they are as subjects. So it was not too surprising this week when the European Commission put out a series of statements which collectively will become a statement of direction for fishing within the EU.

A statement said that the Commission was putting together a package of measures to increase the resilience of EU fisheries and the aquaculture sector and said it was made up of four elements; a letter on energy transition; an action plan to protect and restore marine ecosystems; some changes to the common fisheries policy and a report on the Common Markets for fish. You have to be well dosed in European politics to understand why four separate communications are needed to say just one thing.

It all hinges on  the simple fact that the Russian war has virtually bankrupted all fishing fleets around the EU, but then falls back on complex and sometimes interacting pieces of legislation and funding, which have made up the EU common fisheries policy (CFP) for the past thirty years or so.

In essence there are a lot of fishers in the EU and they can swing votes – not quite as many as there are farmers, but something similar. And the EU neither bullies them or pushes them around, but more often consults with them, and “caters” to them, and “encourages” them. After all, it now realizes that in an age of energy security, food security is just as important. It even wants to begin training people to be part of the fishing sector, despite communities for years moving away from fishing.

Reading between the lines the Russian war has broken something among the various fishing communities and the EU wants to fix it.

The Russian war hiked the price of oil and that in turn made fuels too expensive for the vast fishing fleets of the EU. The hike in energy prices resulted in marine-diesel prices more than doubling in 2022, which in turn meant a huge surge in costs for the fishing fleet. Energy costs went from 13% of revenues to 35% virtually overnight. Profits collectively fell from €218 million to losses of €430 million, mostly as the result of the soaring fuel prices. The Commission does not want this to happen again so wants to move fishing to non-fossil fuels.

Some 40% of the fleet of smaller craft and 66% of the very large craft, and 87% of the fleet which can travel furthest, were not profitable. It turns out that a 10 Euro cent increase in the price of fuel slashes €185 million off its profit. And looking forwards, if nothing changes, continued fuel volatility will mean the fishing sector constantly calling for subsidies. Worse than that, many vessels understood this and stayed in port, driving up fish prices for consumers too and putting less food on EU tables.

In total the EU fleet consumes 1.9 billion liters of marine diesel a year to catch and land 4 million tons of fish which translates to €6.3 billion at first sale with emissions of 5.2 million tons of CO2.

The IPCC has long been in favor of promoting aquaculture at sea – as well as in freshwater – aquaculture is the breeding, raising, and harvesting of fish and shellfish in a sustainable way. Many people feel that this is the only way to feed a global population of 12 billion – not simply creating artificial barriers to overfishing, to make fish stocks sustainable, but segmenting off part of the sea, and protecting key fish stocks, for food.

But it turns out that the EU aquaculture efforts also rely heavily on energy too, through increased energy costs and indirectly through higher feed prices and other input costs. So this burgeoning sector also had to run cap in hand to the EU for subsidies. There is a growing belief among vegans, that fish should not be eaten, but a vegan diet can only be sustained either through expensive supplements or by eating eggs, cheese or fish and the IPCC is well aware of this and so promotes aquaculture – and Asia in particular has many efforts where renewable energy such as floating solar, co-exists with aquaculture and offers it cheap energy – something we are sure to see the EU continue to push into.

In aquaculture energy is needed in the form of fuel to power service vessels, in electricity for feeding systems, water pumps, remote control tools, monitoring systems, and to recirculate and clean water.

The energy costs in the EU mussel aquaculture range from 3% of total costs in operations which use mussel rafts, to 14% of total costs in operations using mussel longlines. In EU rainbow-trout freshwater aquaculture costs range from an almost negligible amount up to 8% of total costs in race-ways and trout tanks. And where feed is provided for fish in aquaculture this is also exposed to to hikes in feeding costs due to rises in energy prices.

Essentially, because the fishing industry is low margin, and cannot fund its own development towards using renewable energy the EU plans to make funding available from a variety of existing funds – one such specialist fund was set up in 2021 called the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF) which runs from 2021 to 2027 with a budget of just over €6 billion, other funds such as part of the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ package will also be made available directly to the fishing sector.

One thing that was mentioned time and time again in all of these documents is the actual polluting effect of using fossil fuels in seas, around sensitive fish stocks and the Commission wants fishing to become both economically and environmentally sustainable, and wants ports to ban the use of fossil fuels when in port.

The Commission says that by 2023 it will organize a conference on the energy transition in the EU fisheries and aquaculture sector and bring together all stakeholders, as an official ‘kick-off’ to a renewed effort on energy transition. It will also launch a new multi-stakeholder energy-transition partnership (ETP) for EU fisheries and come up with a plan to go zero emissions by 2050.

It will also begin consulting with stakeholders to collect best practices and further barriers to the transition and come up with a clearer way forward so that the transition can have clearly defined pathways, and by 2024 the Commission says it will have a roadmap that everyone can buy into.

One idea is to launch a virtual knowledge-sharing platform on

best practices for energy-transition innovation and synergies across sectors which will evolve into a playbook fishers can all rely on.

It talks up a concept that has been around for a while the maximum sustainable yield, whereby breeding is not compromised by over-fishing. But it already has some major problems to face as some fish get close to extinction such as the harbor porpoise in the Baltic and Black Seas

and the common dolphin in the Bay of Biscay, not to mention angel sharks, common skate, guitarfish, Maltese skate, great white shark, sand tiger shark, smalltooth sand tiger shark, spiny butterfly ray, sturgeons, marine turtles, Balearic shearwater and Mediterranean monk seal which are defined as “sensitive marine species.” And it needs to work with the industry to stop them being accidentally “fished” by agreeing standards on netting and procedures.

As far as vessel propulsion goes, it wants to experiment with wind-assisted and solar-electric propulsion, ammonia, renewable hydrogen, sustainable biogas, synthetic fuels and sustainable biofuels and other renewable and low-carbon energy sources all the while tying in opinion from fisheries , shipbuilders, ports, scientists and ocean-based renewable-energy systems and producers.

The EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ package will be used to boost uptake of renewable and low-carbon maritime fuels including the FuelEU Maritime proposal; alternative fuels infrastructure using energy taxation as a disincentive by extending the emissions trading system to maritime transport.