EU has no idea how much fish it catches: watchdog

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has no real idea of how many fish its national fleets catch each year and is failing to clamp down hard on vessels that exceed national quotas, the EU financial watchdog said on Tuesday.

The Court of Auditors said unreliable data on catches, weak inspections with no proper deterrent, as well as general fleet overcapacity were threatening fish stocks. For many species including cod, stocks had been hard hit by years of heavy exploitation.

“Catch data are neither complete nor reliable and the real level of catches is thus unknown,” an ECA report said.

It criticized EU governments and the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, for not doing enough to enforce the rules and stop the overfishing -- a phenomenon that international scientists have warned the EU about for years.

“If this situation continues, it will bring grave consequences not only for the natural resource, but also for the future of the fishing industry and the areas associated with it,” said the analysis of the EU’s six major fishing countries: Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

“If the political authorities want (EU policy) to achieve its objective of sustainable exploitation of the fisheries resources, the present control, inspection and sanction systems must be strengthened considerably,” it said.

More than 4.4 million tonnes of fish and crustaceans are landed in EU ports every year, worth some 6.1 billion euros ($9 billion).

For more than 20 years, EU ministers have agreed annual fishing quotas by species, fishing area and country. Those volumes are based on a total allowable catch, or TAC, that is then sub-divided into quotas allocated to each EU member state.

Catch volumes are calculated on information provided by authorities in each country. Under EU law, a country may be fined if its vessels break the rules -- for example, if they use small-mesh nets to trap extra fish, or trawl in closed seasons.

But inspections and follow-up legal action were inadequate to prevent abuses, while levels of fines were limited, the report said. Countries were also unable to guarantee catch data and the Commission could not identify the errors properly.

The Commission said reporting accurate data on catches was the responsibility of the national authority concerned.

“While it continues to look for ways in which it can improve its own data processing systems, the Commission ... considers that the primary responsibility for providing reliable data rests with the member states,” it said in a statement.

Equipping EU-flagged trawlers with far more fish capacity than they needed, despite Commission efforts to curb this, made matters worse, it said.

“Overcapacity affects the profitability of the fishing industry and, in a context of decreasing authorized catches, is an incitement to non-observance of these restrictions and affects the quality of the data forwarded,” it said.

Reporting by Jeremy Smith; Editing by Caroline Drees