Common Fisheries Policy

What is the Common Fisheries Policy?

The European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was adopted in 1983, with the objective of ensuring that declining fish stocks are exploited responsibly – protecting the environment and the interests of the fishing industry and consumers.

The CFP imposes a regime of equal access for vessels from all member states in the EU's exclusive fishing zone, 200 nautical miles from its coastline. Within this zone, member states have a 12-mile zone around their own coastlines within which their own fishing vessels have exclusive rights.

Atlantic and North Sea fish stocks are sustained through a system of Total Allowable Catches (TACs), which are divided into national Quotas. However, these systems are notoriously difficult to enforce.

The CFP also includes a market organisation for the control of prices, marketing arrangements and external trade policy.


The roots of the CFP lie in the original EU Treaties signed in 1957, which envisaged a common policy for fisheries.

The basic principle of the earliest common agreement on fisheries policy, reached in 1970, was that community fishermen should have equal access to member states' water sources. As a natural and mobile resource, fish were deemed to be the common property of all EU member states. In 1976, in line with international agreements, exclusive fishing grounds were extended from 12 to 200 miles around the EU's coast, and it was also decided that the Community was best placed to manage access to fisheries. Seven years of negotiations followed before the CFP was eventually agreed.

The CFP has since been reformed twice, in 1992 and 2002. In both instances, reforms aimed to preserve declining fish stocks. The late 1980s saw the fishing industry becoming a victim of its own success: high prices led the industry to over-invest, leading to overfishing. Some claimed this was exacerbated by systems of EU grants to the fishing industry, which were seen as a good way to promote regional development.

The 2002 review saw grants for the construction of new boats scrapped completely and premiums increased for decommissioning existing vessels, along with the adoption of recovery plans for specific threatened species and management plans for other stocks. The new CFP came into force on January 1 2003.

It is the responsibility of EU Member States to ensure that the rules agreed under the CFP are respected. In order to strengthen controls, it was decided in the 2002 reform to set up an EU fisheries control agency. The Community Fisheries Control Agency (CFCA) became operational in 2007. It is intended that the Agency will strengthen the uniformity and effectiveness of enforcement by pooling EU and national means of inspection and control, and co-ordinating enforcement activities.

The European Fisheries Fund (EFF) is the financial component of the CFP. The EFF sets out different priority axes (see below) which the Member States prioritise according to their needs.
1. Measures for the adaptation of the Community fishing fleet
2. Aquaculture, inland fishing, processing and marketing of fishery and aquaculture products
3. Measures of common interest
4. Sustainable development of fisheries areas
5. Technical assistance

Each Member State sets up an operational programme (OP) for the whole programming period in which they describe and justify their choice of priority axes and set specific targets for each axis.

The EFF will run for seven years, from 2007 to 2013, with a total budget of around 3.8 billion euros.

In April 2009 the European Commission initiated a major new review of the CFP with the publication of a Green Paper intended to "get the reform ball rolling" and encourage widespread consultation on the long-term future of Europe's fisheries sector.

Joe Borg, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, said that despite steady progress having been made since the 2002 CFP reform, the situation remained "far from perfect." The Green Paper set out "an ambitious vision" for a healthy European fishery and sustainable fish stocks by 2020 – a target which Mr Borg said he was convinced could be achieved, although he stressed that "new and creative thinking" would be needed.

The EC published draft regulatory proposals in July 2011 to be discussed and negotiated by member states, the EC and the European Parliament over the following 18 months.

The final agreed regulation is expected to come into force on 1 January 2013.


The CFP is deeply unpopular within the fishing community, and to date it has failed to preserve fish stocks.

The reviews of 1992 and 2002 have seen increasingly stringent Quotas for UK fishing, focused primarily on the most depleted stocks. The state of cod stocks in the Irish and North Sea have been particularly worrying, having been reduced almost to unsustainable levels.

Although other factors influencing the falling fish populations are not well-understood, the extinction of local cod populations by over-fishing has already been seen off parts of Canada. Debate continues about whether there should be an outright ban in certain areas.

The latest CFP review has addressed many environmentalists' concerns – its support for an overly large EU fishing fleet, harmful subsidies and a lack of focus on ecosystem management – but its effectiveness remains to be seen.

The Scottish National Party called for withdrawal from the CFP altogether and accused the Government of abandoning Scottish interests in the 2002 negotiations. In early 2004, the Conservatives also committed to a policy of withdrawal.

Enforcement of the CFP is also a source of controversy. The use of Quotas has been widely criticised, allegedly leading to illegal (unreported) landings of 'blackfish'.

'Quota Hopping' has also received considerable attention: this practice involves one member state's Quota being 'used up' by vessels sailing under flags of convenience, flagged to the Quota's member state but owned by companies from another member state.

One particularly controversial dispute concerned the operation and legality of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 part II, which resulted in 95 Spanish vessels losing their UK fishing licences. The case, better known as the Factortame dispute, resulted in protracted litigation in the British and EU courts and the EU making a groundbreaking declaration of EU legal primacy – thus revising the traditional notion of legal sovereignty in the UK.

It was also found that some vessels were using illegally small nets, thereby catching and killing juvenile fish, seriously undermining the resilience of populations.

The European Commission's publication of a Green Paper in April 2009 to launch a debate on long-term reform of the CFP was welcomed by the UK government. Defra has been highly critical of the current CFP saying it has not delivered its key objective of an economically viable fishing industry which minimises impacts on marine ecosystems.

The department proposed a number of changes as a basis for ongoing debate. These included regionalisation – the elimination of over-detailed central regulation; integration – ensuring that the CFP is integrated with environmental policies; right-based management – to give fishermen clearer long-term fishing rights with incentives to operate sustainably and profitably; and discards/catch quota – to reduce the "wasteful practice" of discards by focusing on catches, not just landings.

The draft regulatory proposals published in July 2011 "took on board many of the UK's comments", according to Defra. Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon said: "We have been making the case for reform for some time and now we have the opportunity to actually make it happen. It is absolutely crucial that we get the detail right, working with the industry, so that fisheries are managed for the long term, and with less top down micro-management from Brussels."

A consultation was launched subsequently on the Commission’s proposals to reform the CFP and the Common Organisation of the Markets (CMO) in fishery and aquaculture products. Defra reported that responses were received from a range of sectors "with respondents generally welcoming the proposals and the Commission’s ambition for reform."

The consultation closed in November 2011 and the Council of Fisheries Ministers and the European Parliament are expected to agree the final regulation in time for it to come into force on 1 January 2013.


We successfully secured agreement by the EU Council of Ministers and Commission to the UK’s interpretation of Article 13 of the Cod Recovery Plan.

We avoided potentially devastating cuts in the time fishermen can spend at sea in the area covered by the Plan. Moreover, we can continue to award additional days to vessels implementing cod avoidance and discard reduction measures.

Fishermen in all affected Member States will still have an expected annual reduction in the time they are allowed to fish, but we will now be able to continue to work with the fishing industry to develop more conservation measures and provide ‘additional days’ as an incentive and reward for fishermen to take them up.

The results of the recent EU/Norway agreement were endorsed, with a continuation of the amount of additional North Sea cod quota available as part of an expanded catch quota scheme (+12%). This will allow fishermen to land more of what they catch, in return for robust monitoring of their fishing activities and strict limits on discarding.

A continuation of the Western Channel (ICES Area VIIe) sole Catch Quota scheme can also continue with the rollover of an additional 5% awarded to this scheme.

There were also increases in quota for North Sea haddock (+15%), whiting (+15%), plaice (+15%) and sole (+15%).

North Sea herring quota was increased by 100%.

We saw off significant reductions for ‘data poor’ stocks, securing rollovers for many important bycatch species including Dab & Flounder, Turbot & Brill and Lemon Sole & Witch.

In the South West, we fought hard for quota changes to follow scientific evidence, and were successful in securing significant increases in quota for cod (+170%), haddock (+25%) and whiting (+15%) as well as for VIIe sole (+9%) and VIIg-k herring (+60%). The significant quota reduction proposed for VIIde sprat was also prevented using scientific information from our recent Fisheries Science Partnership survey, enabling agreement of a smaller decrease for next year (-5%).

In the South East, quota for channel plaice was increased by 8.5%, and a significant reduction was avoided in VIId skates, with the UK securing a rollover for this important bycatch stock.

In the Irish Sea, we succeeded in ensuring that the significant TAC cut proposed (-19%) for the economically important nephrops stock was eliminated to better reflect the latest scientific assessment for the stock. The proposed 100% reduction in VIIa cod was also overturned, now at -25%.

In the West of Scotland, another UK priority was to secure a significant increase in haddock quota following scientific advice. A 200% TAC increase was secured in return for improved selectivity and national spatial measures. We also secured a rollover in megrim and a small decrease in monkfish (-5%) quota.

Finally, the UK again invoked ‘Hague Preference’ on both North Sea haddock and whiting to ensure adequate fishing opportunities for these stocks for fishermen in the North East and Scotland (by significantly supplementing the amounts otherwise available). We also counter-invoked on those stocks of interest to the UK (to the west of the British Isles) – on which the Irish applied their own Hague Preference prerogative – to limit the potential damage of such invocation.

Source: Defra Sea Fisheries Conservation Division: December Council 2011 – TACs and Quotas 2012


“The current CFP has failed. It has not given us healthy fish stocks and it has not delivered a sustainable living for our fishing industry. Only genuine fundamental reform of this broken policy can turn around these failures.
“I am confident that we can make the case for the radical reform that is needed, alongside our allies at home and abroad, to grasp this once in a decade opportunity.”

UK Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon – 2011

“The report of the Court of Auditors reinforces my conviction that business as usual is not an option. We need new ideas. In our proposals for a new Common Fisheries Policy we want to break with the past."

Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, responding to a European Court of Auditors report on fishing overcapacity which concluded that "a new approach may be needed." – December 2011