Members of the European Parliament have their first chance to use their new legal powers to reform the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy when the fisheries committee votes on Tuesday, writes Chris Davies MEP, a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament and secretary of the cross-party Fish for the Future group.

Is there anyone with a good word to say for the Common Fisheries Policy? Not the European Commissioner responsible for administering it – Maria Damanaki has called it bluntly “a failure”. The CFP is one of the few measures that British politicians can actually name when they express their dislike of the European Union. Two weeks ago, London mayor Boris Johnson became the latest to call for fishing policy to be repatriated.

Europe’s seas have been overfished. Landings have decreased as fish stocks have declined. The latest figures from the EU Fish Processors and Traders Association highlight the continuing trend, with landings down from 7.9 million tonnes in 2002 to an estimated 4.8 million this year. Europe now imports two-thirds of all the fish it eats, with jobs still being lost from the fishing sector.

Whose fault is this? Rules that force fishermen to throw fish overboard, dead, if the quota for the species has been exceeded do not help, with 1.7 million tonnes of perfectly edible fish being discarded annually in this way. But the blame does not rest entirely with the policy. For example, landings of fish in Britain peaked in the mid-1950s and then rapidly trailed off as bigger fishing boats, with better technology, started a process of overfishing and decline that was already firmly established when the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

Fishermen and the politicians who represent them have so often taken a short term approach. Every December EU fisheries ministers have met to set the total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for fish species and the individual quota for member states. Their goal has been to secure the largest quota for the next season without regard to the long term implication for fish stocks. The WWF, the world’s largest environment charity, claims that the TACs set have exceeded the recommendations of scientists by 45 per cent on average over the past decade – authorising overfishing on a huge scale, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

To be fair, in recent years the ministers have tended to keep closer to the upper limits of the scientific advice, and there have been some success stories in rebuilding stocks. Their annual quota-setting meeting starts today and it is to be hoped that this better practice continues. The reform plans adopted last year by the European Commission seek to lock politicians and fishermen into continued good practice.

Among other measures they call for: legally binding targets to halt overfishing by 2015 and rebuild fish stocks to levels above maximum sustainable yield; long term management plans to be agreed by law for every fishery with the aim of rebuilding stocks; an obligation placed on fishermen to land all commercial species of fish and to prohibit discards; and day-to-day decisions about fisheries management devolved to regional advisory councils of fishermen, scientists, processors and environmental groups – ending ‘micro-management’ from Brussels.

While many will regard these proposals as the essential ingredients of a sustainable fisheries policy, the outcome of tomorrow’s votes in the European Parliament’s fisheries committee is uncertain. Fishermen fear that quotas will have to be cut if fish stocks are to recover, and complain that both the ban on discards and the maximum sustainable yield targets are ‘unrealistic’. Some say that the fisheries committee, with only 25 members, is unrepresentative of the parliament as a whole, and weighted in favour of Spanish and French fishing interests that prefer the status quo.

Supporters of CFP reform argue that, far from protecting the fishing sector, the short term, year-by-year, approach has been comparable to slow suicide. Taking a tough line now, with the binding objective of rebuilding fish stocks over the medium to long term, is the best way of securing a better future for Europe’s fish and for its fishermen.