The EU’s most senior court has stopped short of applying overfishing rules across all EU fish stocks in a case taken by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) and environmental lawyers Client Earth.

The EU’s Court of Justice has ruled that EU ministers will be breaking the law if they approve overfishing of target stocks, but the court did not apply the ruling to bycatch stocks. Contrary to usual practice, the EU Court of Justice overturned the advice of its Advocate General, whose legal reasoning had backed NGOs calling for restricting the flexibility for ministers in the EU’s annual regulation on fishing quotas.

The case was filed by the two organisations after the EU missed its 2020 legal deadline to end overfishing. The organisations claimed that EU ministers set fishing limits “far above undisputed scientific advice” in the north-east Atlantic that year.



The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that member states were compliant with the bloc’s rules. If the Court had followed the opinion of the Advocate General, it would have set a precedent and declared invalid the fishing limits for all fish stocks “from 2020” as they are unsustainable.

According to ClientEarth, the ruling is “disappointing” but “provides clarity – going forward, approving overfishing for target stocks is illegal”.

In a statement, ClientEarth marine wildlife and habitats lawyer Arthur Meeus said that “[the] ruling provides clarity – going forward, approving overfishing for target stocks is illegal.”

“However, it’s disappointing that the court did not follow the Advocate General’s opinion and has not confirmed that the obligation to end overfishing applies equally to bycatch stocks,” he said. 

“It’s disheartening that the court failed to view the ocean as a whole and to apply the 2020 overfishing deadline across all stocks,”Meeus said.

“The ocean doesn’t think about fish in terms of stocks – making the distinction between them is arbitrary and fails to view the ocean as one living and breathing ecosystem.”

The case was brought before Ireland’s High Court, which had ‘serious doubts’ about the legality of the EU’s fishing limits, and escalated the proceedings, asking the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to rule on the question.

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