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‘Phenomenal loophole’ in quotas could lead to massive overfishing

Exclusive: Drastically weakened rules on how vessels document their catches of endangered species could endanger the marine ecosystem, confidential EU papers reveal

A push by EU fishing nations including France and Spain to weaken how fish catches are reported could see massive overfishing of endangered species and even “call into question” the whole point of setting quotas, according to confidential EU documents seen by the Guardian.

Europe’s most commonly fished species – which include mackerel, tuna, Atlantic herring and sprat – could be threatened under the latest proposal, which would apply to all vessels in EU waters.

At issue is how fish catches are logged to ensure that vessels are not overfishing. Bloc rules currently allow a 10% margin of tolerance between the declared catch for each fish species in a vessel’s logbook and the quantity they report after landing. But fishing nations want to expand a loophole applied to the Baltic in 2016 that widens the scope of the 10% margin to vessels’ total catches.

Such a “phenomenal loophole” removes any penalty for vessels that submit completely inaccurate estimates for vulnerable fish species, according to one of the European Commission papers.

The loophole has “incentivised hidden overfishing and even calls into question the usefulness of fishing conservation measures, such as quota setting, in a scenario where such quotas can be easily circumvented without any consequence”, the paper said.

The papers, circulated to diplomats and parliamentary negotiators in February, added: “This derogation has led to huge misreporting, in particular underreporting and overfishing of quota species. Misreporting of catches is the precursor to unsustainable fishing, which over time risks resulting in depletion of fish stocks and ultimately to disruption of the marine ecosystem.”

Preliminary EU audits found that misreporting in the Baltic last year was “incentivised” by the derogation and was accompanied by overfishing, another document says.

Sprat, for example, is a species protected by a quota, but in samples from one EU state, sprat was underreported by 78%, while hauls of non-quota species were overreported by 819%, according to the audit, which is mentioned in the EU papers. The average underreporting of herring and sprat in another state were 36% and 63% respectively.