Time to Rock the Boat – EU Must Enforce Rules to Bring Transparency and Sustainability to the Fishing Industry

Seafood, Policy, Transparency & Traceability, Multi-Asset

While much of the European fishing industry is focused on quotas and Brexit, the European Parliament is discussing new transparency measures for the EU fishing fleet. This will require control technologies to become mandatory for all vessels, not just the larger ones as required under existing rules. However, better enforcement of the existing regulation would achieve a greater impact. To date, only 42% of large vessels comply with the present EU regulations on control technologies, eight years after it was approved. It is disappointing to note that the aggregate tonnage of the larger ships failing to apply the existing rules is 2.5 times the aggregate tonnage of small-scale fishers. Will the introduction of this tighter regulation improve compliance with the original law?

New Transparency Proposal for EU Fishing Vessels

The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment (ENVI) has voted to bring more transparency to the European Union fishing industry.  These proposals mark progress towards ensuring sustainability in seafood supply and marine ecosystems in the EU.

The Committee has called for several actions, notably:[i]

  • Mandatory vessel tracking and catch reporting on all EU vessels.
  • Full and verifiable documentation of seafood catches.
  • Cameras on fishing vessels.
  • Digitising the current paper-based seafood traceability systems.
  • Greater transparency on fisheries monitoring and control efforts for the public.
  • Incorporating greater environmental conditionality into the sanctioning system.

Many of these factors, such as vessel monitoring systems (VMS) or digitising documentation (e.g. electronic recording systems [ERS]), have been mandatory for EU vessels above 12 metres in length since 2012.[ii] The main change with this latest proposal is to include smaller vessels.

Compliance of the EU Fleet at a Low Level

Planet Tracker has analysed the 81,181 fishing vessels on the EU Fleet Register as of September 15, 2020 to determine the countries most impacted by the proposed change in the regulation.[iii]  Small-scale fishers, identified as ships smaller than 12 metres, represent 85% of all fishing vessels and one-quarter of total catches in the EU.[iv],[v] Until now, these vessels were not required to have vessel tracking devices and log the fish caught in a reporting system.

Four countries – Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal – account for 54% of the fishing vessels in the EU (the UK is still included in these statistics).[vi] By adding the next largest (Croatia), these countries represent 62% of the small fishing vessels in the EU. Therefore, they will be most impacted by the proposed regulation as only a minority of vessels currently comply – see Figure 1.



Figure 1: Number of Vessels Compliant/Non-Compliant with the New Regulation by Country. [vii]

Note: ‘Compliant’ means that the vessel is equipped with both vessel tracking and electronic catch reporting.  ‘Data-deficient’ indicates that the presence of vessel tracking and/or catch reporting is unknown.

Analysing compliance with the proposed amendment to existing law in terms of gross tonnage rather than number of vessels provides a better proxy to the volume of seafood entering supply chains – see Figure 2. Less than 50% of the aggregate tonnage in the following countries is compliant with the future law:[viii]  Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia. By contrast, 80% or more of the gross tonnage in Belgium, Spain, UK, Poland and Ireland is compliant with the future regulation.


Figure 2: Aggregate Gross Tonnage of Vessels Compliant/Non-Compliant with the New Regulation by Country.[ix]

Compliance of Large Vessels: Unfinished Business

Analysing compliance depending on vessel size leads to surprising conclusions. Only 42% of large vessels (>12m) currently comply with the EU law on control technologies,[x] even though that law became effective in 2012 for all vessels longer than 12 metres.[xi] A further  47% of those large vessels do not provide data regarding vessel tracking or electronic reporting systems, three-quarters which are Greek or Italian vessels[xii] – see Figure 3.


Figure 3: Proportion of Large Vessels Compliant with Control Technologies Regulation by Country. [xiii]

The high level of non-compliance does not prove that the majority of large vessels operate illegally, even though not fulfilling obligations to record and report catch or catch-related data is by far the most common infringement committed by EU vessels.[xiv] There are known exemptions to that EU law:

  • vessels used exclusively for aquaculture.
  • vessels between 12- and 15-metres overall length where the vessel is operated exclusively within the territorial seas of the flag state or never spends more than 24 hours at sea from the time of departure to the return to port.

It is difficult to quantify the proportion of large vessels that qualify for these exemptions.

However, we note that vessels between 12- and 15-metres in length account for 37% of large vessels,[xv] implying that unless the proportion of large vessels used exclusively for aquaculture is very significant (>21%)[1], a noticeable proportion of large vessels do not operate in line with the law.

The status of these exemptions is not clear under the forthcoming change to the EU law. Our interpretation is that the second exemption will be removed. Minimising the number of large vessels which are not compliant with the law, whether through exemption or not, or that do not provide the relevant data, is very important. The gross tonnage of such vessels (29% of the EU total) is 2.5x bigger than the gross tonnage of the entire EU fleet of small vessels (11%)[xvi] – see Table 1.

Table 1: Gross Tonnage of the EU Fleet (UK included) and Compliance with Control Technologies’ Requirements. [xvii]


Funding the Transition

Only 31 small fishing vessels across the EU are already compliant with the proposed amendment as of September 15, 2020, out of a total of 69,303.[xviii] Ensuring that these vessels are equipped with vessel management systems and electronic reporting systems will be supported through one of the five key European funds[2], specifically the European Maritime And Fisheries Fund (EMFF). The EMFF scheme specifically supports fisheries, inland waters, aquaculture and maritime sectors.[xix] Its main priorities include sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, implementing the common fisheries policy and integrated maritime policy, employment, marketing and processing.[xx]

Between 2014 and 2020, the EMFF allocated €6.4 billion (USD 7.6 billion) to its recipients, 84% through member states and 11% through the European Commission directly to relevant parties engaged in ocean stewardship, reduction on impacts on the marine environment, governance issues, public knowledge and marine spatial planning. Specific spending in the fund included:[xxi]

  • €4,340 million (USD 5,144 million) on sustainable fisheries, such as local development and support for fisheries areas.
  • €580 million (USD 687 million) on control and enforcement, to monitor compliance with the European Common Fisheries Policy.
  • €520 million (USD 616 million) on data collection to allow for greater understanding on fish stock dynamics as well as monitoring stock levels of commercial species.
  • €71 million (USD 84 million) on the Blue Economy – Maritime surveillance and increased utilisation of marine resources through energy or biotech.

Figure 4 shows the allocation of funding by country between 2014 and 2020. 43% of total funding was allocated to the four countries – Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal – identified to be the most affected by the new regulation.


Figure 4: EMFF Funding Allocation by Country, 2014-2020 (EUR Million).[xxii]

Next Steps

For the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027, the Commission is proposing a fund of €6.14 billion (USD 7.28 billion).[xxiii] Funding the transition of small-scale fishers to adopt data-driven and transparent models, as included in the proposals from ENVI, will assist in preparing the EU fishing fleet for greater sustainability, as well as identifying areas of non-compliance. Greater transparency of fisheries as a whole will assist in tackling illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, allowing pressure on key ecosystems to be alleviated.

As is far too common when assessing ocean-related legislation, implementation and enforcement of policies is a key barrier. In this case, the significant non-compliance by larger EU fishing boats indicates the slow rate of progress likely if these enhanced transparency regulations are approved. Will the introduction of this tighter regulation improve compliance with the original law?


[1] 100% – 42% (proportion of compliant large vessels) -37% (proportion of large vessels between 12 and15m) = 21%

[2] The European structural and investment funds are: European regional development fund, European social fund, Cohesion fund, European agricultural fund for rural development, European maritime and fisheries fund.

[i] Undercurrent News (2020). EU votes for ‘key steps’ towards more transparent seafood supply chain.

[ii] European Commission (2020). Control technologies.

[iii] European Commission (2020). EU Fleet Register

[iv] Gorez et al., (2018). Joint NGO priorities on the revision of the EU Fisheries Control System.

[v] European Commission (2020). EU Fleet Register

[vi] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[vii] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[viii] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[ix] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[x] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xi] European Commission (2020). Control technologies.

[xii] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xiii] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xiv] European Parliament (2020). Implementation of the current EU fisheries

control system by Member States (2014-19).

[xv] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xvi] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xvii] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xviii] Planet Tracker (2020) based on: European Commission (2020) – EU Fleet Register

[xix] Maritime Marine Organisation (2018). European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF): before you apply.

[xx] European Commission (2020). Facts and Figures on the Common Fisheries Policy.

[xxi] European Union (2015). The European Maritime And Fisheries Fund 2014-2020.

[xxii] European Commission (2020). European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

[xxiii] European Commission (2018). EU budget: Commission proposes a new fund to invest in the maritime economy and support fishing communities.

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