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Climate and biodiversity crises leave no room for error in fish talks

Press Release Date: November 7, 2022

Location: Brussels and London


Emily Fairless | email: efairless@oceana.org

NGOs urge UK and EU to end overfishing and set 2023 catch limits in line with scientific advice

Today the EU and the UK are starting formal negotiations for the setting of 2023 catch limits for their shared fish stocks. In view of the poor state of our seas, continued overfishing and the accelerating climate and biodiversity crises, environmental NGOs urge both parties to adhere to the science and end overfishing now. 

Vera Coelho, Oceana, said: Every year the EU and the UK reaffirm their commitments to sustainable fishing – only to then ignore the science when setting fishing quotas. Some of the fish stocks shared by the UK and the EU are severely depleted, and subject to overfishing year after year. As climate-induced threats add even more pressure on marine life, it is imperative both parties take a more precautionary and long-term approach to save our fish and marine environment.

A report this year by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture (Cefas) revealed that nearly two thirds (65%) of the 2021 UK catch limits, all of them for stocks shared with the EU, were set above scientifically advised levels, with only a third (35%) set in line with scientific advice. Cefas also concluded that this situation has been the same for the last three years. These figures by the UK government body are consistent with an earlier UK fisheries audit by Oceana, in 2021. Another recent report by ClientEarth highlights that progress in following scientific advice has been particularly poor for data-limited stocks, and that advised quota cuts are much more rarely followed than advised increases.

Examples of depleted stocks shared by the UK and the EU include herring in the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and southwest of Ireland; Northeast Atlantic horse mackerel; and Irish Sea whiting. But it is cod, an iconic and much-loved species, which is in a particularly dire state, as all its stocks, from the North Sea to the west of Scotland, Irish Sea or Celtic Sea, are at, or near, historically low levels. For most of these stocks of concern, scientific advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is for a major reduction in catches, or for no catches at all.

Charles Clover, Blue Marine Foundation, said:When even cod, the most iconic species for many European countries, is in such dire straits that one stock has declined by up to 92%, it’s time for the UK and EU to deliver on their promises and their laws. All five cod stocks connected to these negotiations are fished above scientific advice. This absurdity has to stop. How can we take leaders’ promises seriously when time after time they simply take a decision that is the complete opposite of what they’ve promised?

Kenneth Bodles, Marine Conservation Society, said: The EU and the UK must work together to take an ecosystem-based approach to managing our fisheries into the future. We must attain sustainable fisheries and fishing limits must be set within the constraints of the ecosystem itself. Sometimes that means taking tough decisions to prevent the bycatch of overfished stocks or prey species that are important food sources for other fish, seabirds and other marine wildlife. We must consider how our impact on these vital ecosystem species is impacting the wider marine environment and the health of our ocean and planet as a result.

Jenni Grossmann, Client Earth, said: The UK and EU keep sacrificing depleted stocks, like Celtic Sea cod and Irish Sea whiting, to catch more haddock and Norway lobster which often end up in the same nets. Their refusal to temporarily close fisheries or make the necessary quota cuts keeps vulnerable stocks on the brink. The only sustainable way out of this vicious cycle in the long term is to prioritise the recovery of depleted stocks now – even if it means fishing less haddock or other stocks in a better shape. Leaders must stop selling their future – and the future of fishing communities and ecosystems that depend on them – down the river.”

Both sides have also made international commitments in, for example, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to ensure that fishing activities contribute to restoring fish stocks above sustainable levels. They both claim leadership on tackling the biodiversity and climate crises. In spite of this, they have so far missed an internationally agreed deadline to end overfishing by 2020.

To put words into action and really recover and maintain fish stocks above healthy levels, environmental groups are calling on the EU and UK to:

  • Not exceed the best available scientific advice provided by ICES when setting catch limits
  • Provide a climate buffer, particularly for those species most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, by setting fishing limits below the maximum catch advice
  • Take an ecosystem-based approach especially regarding the interaction of species in mixed fisheries, for example the important role of forage fish in the food chain or the impact of bycatch on the most depleted stocks.

A petition has been launched for the public to sign asking the UK government to deliver on its multiple legal commitments and negotiate sustainable quotas for all five cod stocks in UK waters with the EU this autumn.


The EU and UK will set over 100 catch limits – known as Total Allowable Catches (TACs) – for shared stocks between them, as well as with other coastal states such as Norway, Greenland and Iceland in the Northeast Atlantic for 2023.

The 2020 UK Fisheries Act, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and the EU-UK TCA commit to ensuring that fishing activities are environmentally sustainable and contribute to restoring and maintaining fish stocks above scientifically defined maximum sustainable yield (MSY) reference points.

As well as being one of the main causes of marine biodiversity loss, overfishing also critically undermines the resilience of fish and other wildlife to climate change and their ability to mitigate it.

An official letter and more detailed joint NGO recommendations on catch limits for 2023 for the EU and the UK have been sent to decision-makers on both sides of the Channel.