OPINION | EU governments privilege cheap imported fish over sustainable EU production

810,000 tonnes of imported fish will annually benefit from massive tariff derogations regardless of their origin, way of production, sustainability of the stock, labour standards or even if the third country has been identified by the EU for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The Council of the EU will shortly approve a regulation setting autonomous tariff quotas (ATQs) for certain fishery products for the years 2021 to 2023. The ATQ regulation covers species such as tuna, Alaska pollack, cod, flatfish or shrimp for which a relatively high volume can be imported from non-EU countries at a reduced or zero-duty tariff.

The fishing industry, represented by Europêche and EAPO, believes that ATQs are being used in many cases with the sole purpose of getting access to cheap and low-standard fish from foreign fleets which in turn puts pressure on EU producers’ prices and employment. Both organisations call on the EU Council of Ministers to reduce the amount of imported duty-free fish to at least levels set in the European Commission’s proposal1.

Every two or three years, the EU revise the volume of fish for which custom duties are suspended or reduced, taking into consideration the utilisation rate, the need for a level playing field between EU and non-EU producers, value added and other trade preferences. Following a rather balanced proposal from the commission, the Council of the EU is significantly increasing tariff quotas and even introducing new species that can benefit from tax derogations.

This has not come as a surprise to the fishing industry since, from the beginning, there has been a constant trend to increase the amount of tonnes exempted from import duties in the EU. While in 1992, only six species representing 43,000 tonnes were granted reduced import duties, the EU will grant zero duty access to more than 20 species representing 810,000 tonnes, compared to 750,000 tonnes in the previous regulation.

The EU catching sector is not opposed to a rational tariff free setting for certain fishery products that are not sufficiently produced in the EU. However, in light of the negative socio-economic consequences of ATQs for the EU fishing industry, this instrument cannot be intended to foment imports from non-sustainable sources nor to put pressure on EU producers’ prices.