The EU’s feisty fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, opens up about discards, Hugh and going to “war” over mackerel

Maria Damanaki’s office is almost comically inappropriate for a conversation about fishing. Ensconced in the European Commission’s HQ in Brussels, it is a good 70 miles from the nearest major fishing port, its skyline cluttered with concrete and glass.

When critics complain about out-of-touch bureaucrats meddling with the EU fishing industry, they probably imagine them sitting in offices just like Damanaki’s. Brussels on a grey March morning is certainly far removed from the EU fisheries commissioner’s own upbringing on Crete, where artisanal fishermen - not high-rises - used to dominate the landscape.

It’s a different world, but one which Damanaki clearly relishes and approaches with a healthy sense of humour. Instead of going for traditional photographs on her official website, for example, she has commissioned a series of light-hearted cartoons.

“My portfolio - although it’s rather small - has a lot of interest in it,” she tells me. “It affects fishermen, consumers, labelling, external relations and internal relations, so it’s a challenge.”

And Damanaki likes a challenge. A one-time student activist, she was imprisoned in the 1970s for her opposition to the Greek dictatorship and became a figurehead of the popular uprising against the military junta after taking to the airwaves during a student revolt. Almost 40 years on, as protector of the EU’s lucrative fish stocks, she faces a different kind of enemy.

“The enemy is our irresponsible behaviour, the enemy is the quick profit, the ‘let’s go there and fish everything’ idea, thinking that something magical will happen at the end of the day and the fish are going to reproduce,” she bristles. “The enemy is this illusion that nature has unlimited resources.”

Damanaki’s key weapon against this kind of irresponsible behaviour is her package of reforms for the Common Fisheries Policy, which she put forward last July. It contains a wide range of proposals - from reducing fleet overcapacity to seafood marketing - but there is no doubt about her number-one priority: banning the discarding of juvenile, over-quota and non-quota fish.

“It’s a flagship of our reform,” she says. Why? Because discards epitomise what’s gone wrong in the EU fishing industry in the past, Damanaki believes. “It’s something that goes beyond respect of resources,” she says. “It’s a wasteful practice - it’s not about respecting resources; it’s about destroying resources.”

In fact, she adds, the practice of discarding fish at sea is so obviously wrong and provocative that it must be tackled immediately. “There is no excuse. That’s why this is a very emblematic issue.”

Damanaki’s urgency about discards comes as her CFP reform proposals are at a crossroads, with the Commission currently engaged in negotiations with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. She is conscious such negotations inevitably mean compromise to appease those member states - such as France - who believe the proposals go too far, but is determined not to water them down. “Business as
usual is not an option,” she says.

Sharing a common target
Damanaki has to be understandably cautious about publicly praising individual member states she believes are on her side in tackling discards, but she is clearly confident there will be strong UK support in the upcoming negotiations.

“We don’t always agree with the British government and we have different opinions on some issues - this is what negotiation is about - but I really feel that we share a common target,” she says. “I need some help from member states and governments that have understood that we really need reform, and I think this is the case with the UK. I hope they will defend the need for radical reform until the end.”

Public support for an end to discards has certainly gained traction in the UK following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight exposé last January, which garnered nearly 800,000 signatures in support of a discard ban.

It’s not often TV chefs change the course of EU politics, but Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme really was a game-changer, says Damanaki. It completely changed “the political base of the discussion” and was instrumental in bringing those EU fisheries ministers who were “very negative or at least reluctant about introducing a discard ban” to the negotiation table, she says.

And further opportunities for the UK to champion the discards issue are just around the corner, Damanaki believes. The London Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer are an ideal opportunity for the UK to promote sustainable fish to consumers, she says, and she is effusive in her praise of NGOs such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Sustain, which are working with LOCOG on sustainable fish sourcing at the Olympics.

“All these initiaties are very important,” Damanaki stresses. “Why? Because they have raised the awareness of the public.”

Bringing about an end to discards would be enough to keep most fisheries commissioners busy, but there are other - equally pressing - fights that demand Damanaki’s attention. Over the past three years, tensions over fishing quotas have been rising between the EU, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and were brought to a head last year when Iceland unilaterally increased its allowance for catching mackerel to nearly 157,000 tonnes - up from almost zero in 2006 - and the Faroes upped their catch quota six-fold, to 150,000 tonnes.

The increases have sparked widespread concern about the future sustainability of mackerel stocks - the International Council for Exploration of the Sea recently warned the EC that overfishing of mackerel stocks must not continue into 2013 - and the Commission has been criticised for being slow off the mark in tackling Iceland and the Faroes over their flagrant breaches of international law. So can Damanaki match her zeal on discards
with a tangible plan for mackerel?

Her talk is certainly combative. There are three “weapons” available to her, she says. Dialogue, trade measures and - she laughs - “war”. The EC has stuck with dialogue to date, but Damanaki reveals she is now ready to up the pressure on Iceland and the Faroes and implement serious sanctions. She hopes to have trade sanctions agreed by the EU’s institutions later this year, with a view to putting them in place in early 2013 at the latest.

“Not painful enough”
Talk of sanctions against Iceland and the Faroes will inevitably be met with some scepticism. After all, the EC threatened an EU trade embargo on fresh and frozen mackerel from Icelandic and Faroese fishing vessels landed in EU ports last year, only to have to admit later there wasn’t actually any legislation in place to make such an embargo viable. In addition, the sanctions proposed at the time would not have applied to processed fish, making the embargo little more than an empty threat, given that - in the case of Iceland - most fish caught is landed in Iceland first, where it is processed before being distributed to EU countries.

Damanaki admits last year’s embargo proposals didn’t quite hit the mark. “How can I say? They were not painful enough,” she says. But she is determined the new trade sanctions will make up for lost time - the options that are currently being considered are significantly wider in scope than last year’s proposals, she says. The EC recently submitted a proposal to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, asking it to give it power to impose a trade embargo on imports of fish products from the Faroes and Iceland.

“The adoption of unilateral measures by certain states lacking good will to work towards agreed measures may lead to considerable depletion of the fish stock in question even if other states engage in moderating their fishing effort,” the proposal states. “Therefore, it is necessary to provide the EU with the means to take effective measures against states not co-operating in good faith in the adoption of agreed management measures or responsible for measures and practices that lead to over-exploitation of stocks, in order to create a disincentive for the continuation of this unsustainable fishing.”

The exact scope of the ban is still to be worked out, but could include restrictions on fish products being imported from Icelandic and Faroese vessels, EU ports restricting the services they make available to those vessels and not allowing the two countries to use any EU vessels or equipment to fish mackerel.

And what about that third option? Would she seriously consider resorting to war to safeguard the EU’s mackerel stocks? Damanaki laughs and diplomatically skirts around the issue, but given her feisty record on discards, one thing’s for sure - this is a woman who is up for a good fight.

Iceland, the Faroes and fish discarders everywhere - you have been warned.

Maria Damanaki snapshot

Born: Crete, 1952

Family status: Divorced with three children

Education: Master of Science degree in chemical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens. Fluent in Greek, English and French.

Commercial career: Started her career in 1974 as an engineer at Pechiney Aluminium Industries before becoming an administrator at Greece’s ministry of finance in 1975. Worked as a section manager for Helector, a Greek energy and waste management company, between 2003 and 2004.

Political Career: Student activist against the Greek dictatorship between 1970 and 1974. Imprisoned by the regime between November 1973 and July 1974. Became the youngest ever MP to be elected in Greece aged 25.

Successfully defended her seat in the Greek parliament between 1977 and 1993, and became the first woman ever to lead a Greek political party in 1991, after being elected president of the Coalition of Left and Progress. Ran for Athens mayor in 1994 and 1998.

Appointed European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in November 2009.