The livelihoods of many EU citizens depend on the sea and its resources – fish, of course, but also energy from offshore wind parks and oil and gas fields. The EU's merchant fleet depends on the world's oceans for trade. Coastal areas are magnets for tourists - another source of livelihoods.
With so much at stake we must be responsible in our use of the seas' resources, prevent overfishing and ensure that oil and gas extraction does not harm the marine or coastal environment.
The EU fishing industry is the world's 4th largest, supplying some 6.4 million tonnes of fish each year. Fishing and fish processing provide jobs for over 350,000 people.
The EU makes every effort to ensure fishing is sustainable - both economically and environmentally - while protecting consumers' interests and taking fishermen's needs into account.
The reform of the EU's common fisheries policy that took effect in January 2014 has precisely these aims: to secure fishermen's livelihoods, while stopping overfishing and the consequent depletion of stocks.
The new legislation is underpinned by a European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Between 2014 and 2020, this will finance projects designed to
This will help fishermen to move towards sustainable fishing, and coastal communities to diversify their economies.
The EU works with UN bodies and negotiates within regional and international fisheries organisations to ensure that waters everywhere are regulated in a transparent, sustainable way and that stocks are not overfished.
Bilateral agreements with non-EU countries give EU fishermen access to fish in distant waters, under the same sustainability conditions that apply within the EU. This helps to keep the EU market supplied. In return, the partner countries (including developing countries) receive a financial contribution that they can invest in developing their own fisheries industry and building up their own fish stocks.
There is a widening gap between the amount of seafood eaten in the EU and the volume supplied by the fishing industry. This can be bridged to some extent by aquaculture. Today, a quarter of fish and seafood produced in the EU already comes from fish farms and other forms of aquaculture. Mussels, rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon are the main species farmed in the EU by volume, followed by oysters, sea bream, common carp, clams and sea bass.
European aquaculture maintains exceptionally high standards of environmental protection, animal health and consumer safety. However, the sector has been stagnating in recent years. New legislation is designed to reverse this trend and boost the supply of fresh, healthy and locally produced food.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing depletes fish stocks, destroys marine habitats, distorts competition, puts honest fishers at an unfair disadvantage and weakens coastal communities, particularly in developing countries.
The EU is working to close the loopholes that allow illegal operators to profit from their activities. Only marine fisheries products certified as legal by the flag state or exporting state can be traded in and out of the EU. And any EU operators who fish illegally anywhere in the world, under any flag, face substantial penalties proportionate to the economic value of their catch, which deprive them of any profit.
Sustainability is also about how we consume seafood – so the EU and European governments work hard to keep consumers aware of this issue.
And while consumers have considerable power with their purchase choices, it is important that their efforts are matched by all other components in the supply chain.
For example, under the new labelling rules for fish, molluscs, crustaceans and algae, all products sold to EU consumers or mass caterers must include the following information:
Seas and oceans are major drivers of the European economy. The EU has the world’s largest number of commercial ports (1,200) and largest merchant fleet. 90% of trade with non-EU countries and 40% of trade within the EU is seaborne. This sector represents roughly 5.4 million jobs and generates a gross added value of almost €500 billion a year.
However there is still a vast untapped potential for innovation and growth, especially in some areas. As a result, in recent years the EU has broadened the scope of its maritime policy to encompass all uses of maritime space.
Its long-term goals are set out in the Blue growth strategy, including:
To raise awareness of the crucial importance of healthy seas and oceans for our lives, the EU celebrates European Maritime Day on 20 May each year.
Manuscript updated in November 2014
This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series