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Brussels, 5 December 2007

Court of Auditors' Report on the control, inspection and sanction systems of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)

What does the Court of Auditors Report deal with?

The Court of Auditors report focuses closely on some crucial aspects of the CFP which have a significant influence on its approach to sustainable fisheries management, namely the reporting of catches, and related control and enforcement.

For a catch limitation system to work, the actual level of catches made needs to be recorded accurately and in a timely manner, so that when the limits are reached, measures can be taken to close the fishery in question and thus ensure that the limit is not exceeded. That is why the Court's report focuses on data collection (i.e. reporting of catches and landings for quota management purposes), control and enforcement.

The Court concludes that there are serious shortcomings in all these areas, which make it possible for fishermen to over-fish without being stopped in time.

What is the role of the Commission in the collection of catch data?

In the Court of Auditors' report, 'data collection' refers specifically to data on catches and landings, and not to data of a scientific nature, or data concerning the EU fleet, or socio-economic factors.

Under the CFP, the responsibility for collecting the catch data provided by fishermen and ensuring that it is reliable lies with the Member States. Member States must also control the actual captures made by fishermen and apply adequate sanctions when these captures do not comply with EU regulations.

The Commission's role is to lay down guidelines concerning the form in which catch data must be recorded by the Member State and transmitted to the Commission. The Commission controls and assesses Member States control systems and procedures. If these systems fail to ensure compliance with quotas and / or CFP regulations, the Commission may launch infringement procedures against the Member States concerned.

Member States collect data on fisheries operations in many forms – from logbooks, landing declarations, and sales notes, among other sources. The data is aggregated at national level by Member States and transmitted by them to the Commission, which aggregates it at EU level for the purposes of monitoring quota uptake. In the case of species covered by Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas, under the rules of the CFP Member States have to report their national catch figures monthly, that is, figures for each month must be received by the Commission before the 15th of the month following. The Commission then makes these figures available through an online database, so that each Member State can see, more or less in real time, how much of its quota has been caught.

It is very difficult for the Commission to identify misreporting and/or fraud simply through the analysis of an aggregate data base. While it continues to look for ways in which it can improve its own data processing systems, the Commission therefore considers that the primary responsibility for providing reliable data rests with the Member States.

What do the Commission's inspectors do? What constraints do they operate under?

The job of the Commission's inspectors is to evaluate how well the CFP is being applied and enforced in the Member States. They do not directly inspect fishermen and other operators.

Since the Commission's inspectorate is quite small – only 25 inspectors in total – most of its inspection missions have targeted specific fisheries which are perceived to present a high risk of illegal fishing or inadequate control. Before 2002, Commission inspectors had to accompany a national inspector, though they could do so without giving prior notice. Since the Reform of 2002, they are able to carry out inspections without being accompanied by inspectors of the Member State concerned. However, these unaccompanied inspections are limited to places of first landing of catches, first sale and fishing vessels. Such inspections cannot be carried out if the inspected party objects, and their results must be validated by the national inspection authorities.

What kinds of flaws have been identified by the Court of Auditors?

The Court looked at both the role of the European Commission in developing the CFP rules and monitoring their application, and at how the CFP is actually applied in six of the most important European fishing states (Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom), which together account for almost 70% of EU landings.

While the Council, on proposal from the Commission, establishes the legal framework for catch reporting, control and enforcement under the CFP, it is the individual Member States which, through their national authorities, have to implement these rules in practice. Once the rules are decided, the role of the Commission is restricted to checking that the mechanisms which the Member States put in place are fit for purpose, and do in fact deliver the results required of them. (This may include providing technical and financial assistance, where appropriate.)

The Court argues that there are three main types of failure in the CFP catch limitation system:

  • There is widespread under-reporting of fish captured, and the control systems in place in the Member States fail to detect and correct these false declarations or fraud;
  • Sanction regimes in Member States are of variable effectiveness and levels of sanctions are generally not dissuasive;
  • Regulations at EU level and the inspections and other actions carried out by the Commission under the mandate it has received do not amount to the decisive action required to remedy these weaknesses.

While the Court detects weaknesses at different levels, the main flaws it identifies in the existing system are at the level of implementation by the Member States. The Court also makes it clear that many of the weaknesses it attributes to the Commission are due to the fact that current state of EU law does not grant the Commission sufficient authority for it to be able to perform its 'watchdog' function in an effective and timely manner.

Does the Commission agree with the Court's conclusions?

Yes, the Commission broadly agrees with the Court's conclusions, even if it may differ on certain details of the analysis put forward. Indeed, most of the problems highlighted by the Court are known to the Commission and the Court itself noted that the Commission has mentioned some of them in its reports on compliance. In some cases, action is already underway to remedy them. In other areas much still remains to be done, and this is why the Commission had decided, well before the Court issued its report, that the recasting of the CFP control legislation would be a strategic priority for its 2008 legislative work programme. The Court's report will provide the Commission with strong support for a number of initiatives it is planning.

Some of the failures of the current catch reporting system are already being addressed through the introduction of electronic reporting systems (ERS) under the regulation adopted by Council in December 2006. ERS will eliminate time lags in reporting, and facilitate cross-checking of data from different sources. Detailed implementing rules are currently being agreed with the Member States, and roll out of the system is foreseen by 2010.

The need to strengthen control systems has been apparent for some time, and this dimension of the CFP has not been addressed globally since the reform of 2002, despite a number of actions taken by the Commission on specific subjects. The overhaul of the CFP Control Regulation planned by the Commission in 2008 will seek to:

  • Strengthen mechanisms to improve the accuracy and reliability of capture data, at both Member State and EU level, in particular through cross-checking of different data sets;
  • Improve and harmonise fisheries inspections across the EU;
  • Strengthen the Commission's means to act upon weaknesses identified in Member States' control and enforcement systems;
  • Strengthen the dissuasive effect of the sanction regimes in the Member States.

While the Commission will propose new rules where this can improve reporting and control, it also believes that substantial improvements remain possible under the existing rules. Recent improvements in the control of pelagic fisheries and in port state control of third-country landings owe much to the pressure which the Commission has brought to bear on Member States concerned to target their resources to address these problems.

Doesn’t the Court's report suggest that the whole approach of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) based on catch limitations should be questioned?

No. In fact, quite the opposite. The Court's report has identified weaknesses in some aspects of the CFP, namely catch data collection, and related control and enforcement functions, which had to a large degree already been identified by the Commission. But the intention of the Court's report and recommendations is clearly to strengthen the Common Fisheries Policy by improving its control framework. Indeed, they provide important support for the Commission's efforts to further improve the CFP by addressing weaknesses that were not sufficiently tackled by the 2002 Reform.

The option proposed by the Court, and pursued by the Commission, is that of moving ahead with the Common Fisheries Policy by further strengthening it.

The Court of Auditors considers that over-capacity in fishing fleets provides a "structural" incentive to over-fishing and fraud. Why did the CFP move from regulating fishing capacity to regulating fishing effort?

The Court argues that overcapacity in the fishing fleet creates a situation that is conducive to over-fishing. It therefore questions the policy choice of moving from fishing capacity control to fishing effort control.

Firstly, it should be said that the catches made in a fishery are the result of the fishing effort applied (i.e. fishing capacity times the number of days at sea). The Commission agrees that overcapacity is a major problem because it creates a situation conducive to over-fishing, but it does not believe that a return to setting specific targets for the reduction of fleet capacity is an appropriate solution. The EU tried such a system of micro-managing capacity reduction under the Multi-Annual Guidance Programmes (MAGP) which ran until 2002, and this approach failed to deliver the results that were sought. The system brought about by the Reform of the CFP in 2002, therefore combines:

  • strict limits on fishing effort in the context of multi-annual management plans,
  • a cap on fleet capacity per member state, complemented by the rule that any capacity removed with public aid is irreversibly deducted from the authorised capacity ceiling of the member state concerned,
  • no more subsidies for building vessels or increasing their capacity,
  • incentives for decommissioning, and
  • support for economic diversification in coastal communities.

This system limits the fishing effort applied by fishing fleets, while giving flexibility to Member States and stakeholders to decide how this effort should be limited (i.e. by reducing capacity, or by reducing the number of days at sea for the existing capacity). At the same time, it clearly provides a drive towards reduction of overcapacity. As a matter of fact, between 2003 and mid-2007, the capacity of the EU fleet was reduced by almost 10% in Gross Tonnage. However, technical advances have also considerably increased the catching ability of vessels. The Commission therefore continues to actively reflect, with the Member States, on means to further reduce overcapacity. It must be stressed that, in the end, the decision to remove a vessel from the fleet can only be taken by its owner.

How can the Commission fix TACs and quotas if catch data reported by member states are substantially inaccurate? Isn't this problem further compounded by the practice of discards, which are not reported by fishermen?

From the scientific point of view, there are ways in which under-reporting and discard rates can be estimated, and thus taken into account when establishing estimates of stock sizes and mortality rates. The scientists of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) commonly make allowance for under-declarations and discards when they make the stock assessments on which TACs and quotas for most of the main commercial EU fish stocks are based. ICES reports thus often refer to 'total removals', as opposed to figures for catches and/or landings.

Discards clearly represent an unethical and pointless waste of valuable biological resources, and make no sense, neither ecologically nor economically. That is why the Commission has recently adopted a proposal for a new policy to eliminate discards in European fisheries (IP/07/429). The new approach is similar to the discards ban which is already in place in several third countries, including Norway. The Commission intends to come forward with its first regulatory proposals on this subject in the course of 2008. The recent commitment to reduce discards of North Sea cod and whiting also represents a move in this direction.

What prevents the Commission from acting more rapidly to close fisheries when there is evidence that quotas have been exhausted?

As a rule, once a Member State sees that its quota for a certain fish stock is close to being exhausted, it will itself take action to close the fishery concerned. However, sometimes Member States fail to act in time, and the Commission is then obliged to close a fishery on its own initiative.

The problem which then faces the Commission is that it needs a high level of certainty to be able to act unilaterally. In most cases where there is suspicion of underreporting, evidence provided by the Commission's inspectors plays a key role in establishing the case for action. Since there is a lot at stake economically and socially, this evidence needs to be as strong as possible.

Why doesn't the Commission make more use of its powers to bring pressure to bear on the Member States, to make sure that they really implement the rules of the CFP?

At present, the Commission has two main ways of encouraging national authorities to fulfil their control and enforcement obligations: dialogue, and infringement procedures. Dialogue is appropriate for routine problems, and can include technical and financial assistance for the improvement of national control systems. This kind of low-profile cooperation is a regular part of our working relations with the Member States. Infringement procedures, on the other hand, are high-profile and very long, and the high burden of proof which lies with the Commission makes heavy demands on its limited resources. In the case of infringement procedures, the Commission has to demonstrate not only that the fault exists, but that it is both general and ongoing. They are therefore used only to deal with the most serious failings.

However, when faced with long-term structural problems which do not respond to dialogue and persuasion, infringement proceedings can be a highly effective means of influencing the behaviour of the Member States. The recent ruling against France, which led to the payment of a lump sum fine of EUR 20 million and a periodic penalty of more than EUR 57 million, led to a drastic improvement in the control practices concerned, as well as serving as a warning to other Member States (IP/06/1621).

The Commission agrees with the Court that it could be useful for it to have other tools at its disposal. The Commission will be looking at how this could be done in the context of the reform of the control policy.

See also IP/07/1862.

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