02/11/2013 09:26 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

World's Fifth Largest Fishing Power Makes Historic Move to Protect Fisheries

Last week the European Union, the world's fifth largest fishing power, made a historic move to protect its threatened fisheries as members of the European Parliament (MEPs) overwhelmingly voted to overhaul the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

The overarching legislation for fishing in the EU, the CFP has an enormous influence over a large part of the world's fisheries. European boats catch more than 6.3 million tons of fish every year (almost 4.5 percent of the total fish caught, by weight, worldwide) and comprise a fleet of tens of thousands of fishing boats. Not to mention, the European Union is also the number one importer of fish products in the world. Despite its intentions, however, the current legislation is broken and demands overhaul if EU fisheries are to ever rebound.

If a final agreement is made in June, the new law will be aggressive in ensuring that catch levels (of fish stocks) are set according to the Maximum Sustainable Yield by 2015, so fish stocks can be rebuilt. It will also put an end to the wasteful practice of discards, put Europe on a path to low-impact fishing and set up a network of fish stock recovery areas.

The CFP is a necessary piece of legislation as it manages catch quotas, sets subsidy rules and governs all other aspects of fisheries management in the 27 states that make up the union. With member states sharing mutual access to European fishing grounds, a common policy is necessary to ensure consistent, fair play throughout EU waters. But the original policy, which was last reformed in 2002, has failed to bring about the change needed to protect the oceans and the best interest of the fishing industry. Ten years later, total catch is declining (nearly 29 percent less in 2010 than it was in 2001), subsidies are encouraging overfishing by fueling the business of excess vessels and the future European fisheries hang in the balance.

Mindful of the many shortcomings of the existing policy, Oceana and its allies have been campaigning for major changes over the past 20 months in order to protect the natural environment and to ensure that fish stocks are maximized in order to sustainably feed as many people as possible.

One of the most notable amendments of this comprehensive reform is the move to enforce a strong EU wide ban on discards -- the act of dumping unintentional or surplus catch overboard before being landed. According to EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, almost one quarter of all fish caught are currently being dumped at sea. This amounts to unnecessary environmental degradation and a waste of valuable resources that these countries will never recover.

Reforming the policies that govern EU fishing has never been more important than it is now - for the health of the oceans the economies that depend on them. European fisheries are so depleted that in several Member States it has been estimated that the cost of fishing to the public exceeds the total value of the catches. That means that they're spending more money to keep the industry afloat than they receive from the resulting catch itself.

This trend will only continue unless the serious reforms set forth by Parliament's vote are completely ratified. A long term, sustainable plan must trump the shortsighted, business-as-usual model that has pillaged European waters up to the point.

The reformed CFP would do just that. Damanaki reported that if the legislation is officially passed, it would increase fish stocks by 15 million tons. She added that incomes would rise by 25 percent and one-third more jobs would be created.

With access to rich, productive waters that produce a substantial amount of the world's fish, Europe long ago positioned itself as a global fishing leader. Now, with the historic steps set forth by the European Parliament, they are establishing themselves as a leader in fisheries management as well. If the EU can harness the power and skill of its fishing fleet while enforcing legislation that maximizes their potential to be productive and sustainable, then their fisheries will soon be healthy and capable of supporting a robust economy. It is possible to have both.

The next step is for the Parliament and the Council of Fisheries Ministers to negotiate a compromise by June 2013. The largest hurdles may have been cleared, but the work continues.