Though welcome, the European Commission’s vision for climate-neutral fisheries is shallow — deeper ambition and implementation action is needed to align fishing with European climate objectives, Pascale Moehrle and Enric Sala write.
Three years after launching the European Green Deal, the European Commission has set afloat its first communication to accelerate the energy transition of the fisheries sector.
This welcome initiative — the EU's flagship, aimed at tackling climate change in all sectors of the economy and making the EU climate-neutral by 2050 — intends not only to reduce the carbon footprint of the fishing sector but also to improve its economic performance, which is highly dependent on fluctuations in fossil fuel prices, as exposed again during the recent energy crisis.
However, we believe that the European Commission’s approach is too shallow.
It focuses on direct emissions of the EU fishing fleet — those coming from the burning of fossil fuels during fishing activities — which Oceana estimated to be equivalent to 7 million tonnes of CO2 per year, on average, or the equivalent of driving around the planet nearly 700,000 times.
Fishing's impact on the climate crisis is more than just burning fuels
While emissions have decreased significantly in the last few decades, this has been driven primarily by a steady reduction in the number of active fishing vessels rather than by improvements in energy efficiency.
Much more action will be needed to promote a transition to alternative propulsion methods, and this is the focus of the European Commission’s strategy.
But the contribution of fishing to the climate crisis is not just limited to burning fossil fuels.
Some fishing techniques — like bottom trawling and dredging — involve dragging weighted nets on the seabed, making vessels incredibly fuel-hungry, while also disturbing carbon-rich sediments and releasing previously sequestered carbon back into the water column.
Part of this carbon can be remineralised to CO2, potentially increasing ocean acidification and reducing the ocean’s capacity to absorb atmospheric CO2.
In addition, fishing can disrupt the "biological carbon pump" through which carbon cycles through the ecosystem, sinks, and is sequestered in the deep sea.
Fish play a key role in the carbon pump, but their role is compromised when fish biomass is depleted through overfishing.
Brussels needs to adopt a multi-pronged approach
Therefore, to accomplish its ambitious climate goals, the EU needs to comprehensively tackle the climate impacts of fishing via a two-pronged approach.
First, the European Commission needs to assess the "real" carbon footprint of fishing, looking beyond just the fuel emissions of its fleets, and examining the disruption caused by fishing on ocean carbon cycling and storage.
Second, using the best available science, the European Commission needs to develop a set of targeted measures to guide member states in achieving carbon-neutral fishing for their fleets.
Measures related to energy efficiency and the use of renewable and low-carbon energy sources form the backbone of the European Commission’s proposal to transition towards climate-neutral fisheries in the EU.
While these solutions will require time and investment, member states can buy time by removing harmful fuel subsidies and prioritising the allocation of fishing opportunities — such as fishing quotas — to more selective, less destructive fishing methods, which also tend to be less carbon-intensive.
In addition, member states should identify and protect carbon-rich habitats from the impacts of fishing.
Europe has to turn the tide
The clock is ticking. While the EU continues to debate strategies and timelines to address the climate impact of fisheries in its energy transition roadmap due next year, outdated fuel-hungry and high-impact fishing fleets across the EU continue to operate, and heatwaves and other climate impacts are increasingly putting marine life under pressure.
It is time for Europe to turn the tide and take ambitious steps to ensure the fishing sector plays its part in addressing simultaneously the biggest challenges of our time — the loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis.
_Pascale Moehrle is the Executive Director of Oceana in Europe, and Enric Sala is Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.
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