European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has recommended that the EU fisheries council should “proactively” release documents on annual fishing quota negotiations into the public domain writes Lorna Siggins
Ms O’Reilly has ruled that the documents should be made public at the same time as they are circulated to member states, or “as soon as possible thereafter”.
She said that releasing the relevant documents while the decision-making process was continuing aimed to “promote greater transparency of environmental information”.
Her recommendation follows a complaint by non-profit environmental law organisation ClientEarth, which has offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing.
Welcoming the EU Ombudsman’s decision, ClientEarth said that the move could “open up the current opaque decision-making process, which blocks public scrutiny and keeps member state positions secret”.
Ms O’Reilly began her investigation last May after the lawyers’ organisation raised the issue of “many years of unexplained fishing quotas, set above the scientific advice for the recovery and long-term sustainability of fish populations”.
In her ruling, Ms O’Reilly said that she had “already taken the view that having a complete and accessible public register is key to transparency”.
“To enable the public to exercise fully the right to access documents, all documents produced and/or circulated in preparatory bodies should be listed in a public register, irrespective of their format and whether they are fully or partially accessible or not accessible at all,” her ruling stated
“ In addition, in order to enable the public to access these documents, they must be easy to find on the (EU) Council’s website. Only through a complete and accessible register of documents can the public get a proper overview of deliberations taking place in preparatory bodies,” she stated.
ClientEarth environmental democracy lawyer Anne Friel said that the EU Ombudsman’s recommendation “couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment for the EU’s fish stocks, as 2020 is the legal deadline to end overfishing”.
“If EU ministers are to meet this deadline, public scrutiny of the decision-making process is vital,” she said.
“Publishing meeting documents that show member states’ positions in a timely manner would help the public participate in the decision-making process and hold governments to account,” Ms Friel said.
“Being more transparent would also incentivise ministers to follow advice from scientists rather than caving to industry demands,” she said.
Last week, the European Commission published its proposal for fishing opportunities in 2020 for 72 stocks in the Atlantic and the North Sea.
It said that for 32 stocks the fishing quota is “either increased or remains the same”, while for 40 stocks “the quota is reduced”.
The European Commission said that sustainable fishing “has made substantial progress, with 59 stocks being fished at maximum sustainable yield levels this year - up from 53 in 2018 and compared to only five stocks in 2009.
“This means that the fishing pressure on the stocks is limited to a level that will allow a healthy future for the fish stocks' biomass while taking into account socio-economic factors,” it said.
It said it was “working with member states to support the fishermen in reaching the objective of fishing all stocks at sustainable levels by 2020, as set by the Common Fisheries Policy.
“ As the size of some key fish stocks is increasing – for instance, haddock in the Celtic Sea and sole in the Bristol Channel– so has the profitability of the fishing sector, with an estimated €1.3 billion gross profit for 2019,” the Commission said.
Fisheries ministers meet on December 16th and 17th in Brussels to determine quotas for next year, with Britain participating due to the Brexit negotiation extension.
ClientEarth called on the EU fisheries council to “implement the EU Ombudsman’s recommendation immediately and publish all relevant documents on fishing limits as soon as they are circulated in the council”.