CEO Note: In conversation with Pascale Moehrle, Oceana's leader in Europe on Brexit, protecting the Mediterranean, and cracking down on plastic pollution | Oceana
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December 3, 2021

CEO Note: In conversation with Pascale Moehrle, Oceana’s leader in Europe on Brexit, protecting the Mediterranean, and cracking down on plastic pollution


Oceana campaigns across Europe, from Spain, to the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Belgium, to win policy victories that will help restore European seas and increase abundance. In recent years, thanks to campaigning by Oceana and our allies, Spain created the second largest marine park in the Mediterranean and the first to protect cold-water corals. And, following findings from an Oceana expedition, Scotland protected its Southern Trench with the creation of a new marine protected area.

Unfortunately, Brexit negotiations have put shared fish stocks between the European Union and the UK at risk. Oceana’s campaigning has put sustainable fisheries management at the forefront of those conversations, but there is still more work to be done. Below you will find a recent conversation I had with Pascale Moehrle, Executive Director of Oceana in Europe, about how Oceana is campaigning to restore the abundance of Europe’s oceans and seas.

Andrew Sharpless: Tell us about your career, how did you end up becoming an ocean advocate?

Pascale Moehrle: I have been working in the field of conservation since 1983 – that’s a pretty long stint! I was fortunate enough to start my career working alongside personnel in Asia and the Pacific who were campaigning day and night to save endangered species and improve the livelihoods of local communities. This was truly inspirational and incredibly motivating and has kept me going. I am convinced that it is possible to make a positive difference – but all this takes time and time is running out.

I was born and brought up in the United Kingdom – an island surrounded by the sea. Connecting with the ocean was part of life. When I was a child, I spent most of my summers in Normandy and Brittany. I will always remember going out to sea with my father, grandfather, and local fishermen. We would go out late at night. It was both scary and magical but left a strong impression and a deep respect for the ocean and those who depend upon it.

What particularly attracted me to joining Oceana was its way of doing business and its sense of urgency. Implementing campaigns with real focus. Not trying to do everything everywhere but making tough strategic decisions on where we could truly add value to ensure the greatest impact by using a combined set of skills – policy and advocacy, communications, legal interventions, and science.

AS: Europe is home to many organizations advocating for environmental protections. What makes Oceana different?

PM: Oceana is one of the very few NGOs in Europe that is exclusively dedicated to the ocean. Oceana does not simply look at the ocean as a source of fish: we look at it as a means to feed the world. We don’t see the ocean only as a place with beautiful corals or whales: it is the system that regulates the entire planet’s climate. Oceana knows, respects, and loves the ocean, and that makes us special.

In addition, Oceana has a high level of credibility due to our own research and at-sea expeditions. We not only collect data and develop our own science, but we have also built important relationships with fishers, scientists, and national administrations. This sets us apart from other organizations who focus exclusively on political lobbying.

But what really makes Oceana in Europe different is our team, which has many years of combined experience in ocean protection, research, and advocacy. Our staff are passionate experts who give everything they have, day in and day out, to protect the ocean. We are a very diverse team – coming from all corners of Europe (and beyond!), speaking different languages, and united in our fight to build a healthy and abundant ocean.

AS: How important are the oceans to life in Europe?

PM: The ocean is inextricably linked with European society and well-being, both past and present. The seas around Europe have provided food and livelihoods for centuries, and ocean exploration expanded European horizons to new shores, expanding trade and increasing economic growth.

Seafood is an important part of the diet in Europe, which has the second-highest average seafood consumption among the world’s continents after Oceania. This reliance on the ocean for food is partly met by the large European fisheries sector (which employs more than 130,000 people in EU countries, and as many as half of local jobs in some European coastal communities). However, Europe’s demand for seafood also extends to the global ocean, both via European fleets fishing around the world, and through substantial imports of seafood caught by other countries.

The seas around Europe provide vital benefits that often go underappreciated. They protect our coasts from erosion, provide us with oxygen, produce renewable energy, and help to mitigate climate change. These ‘ecosystem functions’ are critical to our lives and well-being.

The ocean is also part of the fabric of daily life for many Europeans. Almost half of the population of the European Union (EU) lives within 50 kilometers of the sea, and tourists across most European countries prefer to spend their holidays by the seaside. It comes as no surprise that recent scientific studies have shown that spending time by the sea benefits our mental health and well-being.

AS: What do you look forward to achieving this year with Oceana in Europe?

PM: By the end of this year, the EU is expected to adopt a revised law regulating how fishing activities are controlled and how illegal fishing is sanctioned. Thanks to Oceana’s campaigning, we expect this new law to, for the first time, mandate vessel monitoring systems and electronic catch reporting for the entirety of the EU fleet – including around 50,000 small-scale vessels. This will increase the safety at sea of small-scale fishers and enable the enforcement of fishing and habitat protection laws which are currently often flouted.

This year we also expect Spain to adopt new national legislation to curb single-use plastics. While Spain needs to comply with EU-set deadlines and bans on certain single-use plastics, Oceana has succeeded in including additional bans (for instance, on mass balloon releases) in the draft law currently being discussed by the Spanish Congress.

Oceana will also formally propose new fisheries restrictions to protect the Cabliers reefs, located between Spain and Morocco. The area, previously surveyed by Oceana, hosts the largest and only known growing cold-water coral reefs in the Mediterranean Sea. Oceana’s proposal for a bottom-fishing closure of 860 square kilometers will protect this unique habitat and the many species that gather there to feed, reproduce, and escape predators.

AS: The Mediterranean Sea is the most overfished sea in the world. How is Oceana tackling this issue?

PM: The Mediterranean Sea touches 46,000 kilometers of coastline in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East; it is a melting pot of cultures, languages, and people. It is a key source of food security and livelihoods for millions of fishers and local people – but as you rightly point out, it is the most overfished sea in the world with more than 80% of fish stocks overexploited.

We have been working in the Mediterranean Sea since the very beginnings of Oceana in Europe and can proudly reflect on some victories such as the expansion of Cabrera Marine National Park, making the area nine times larger and taking the total area protected to 90,794 hectares. But this victory didn’t happen overnight – it took many years to achieve but it demonstrated that it is possible for countries, such as Spain, to recognise the importance of protecting its waters and marine life.

But we can never rest on our laurels and new efforts are needed to ensure a sustainable future for Mediterranean fisheries.

To address this challenge, the Med Sea Alliance, which brings together donors, NGOs, and networks to combat overfishing and destructive fishing in the Mediterranean, was created earlier this year. The Alliance’s first joint campaign launched a few months ago to end trawling in Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean Sea and to ensure that existing rules are better enforced across the region. It is only a starting point and the initial phase of a wider campaign to confine bottom trawling to very limited areas, reverse the culture of non-compliance and expand the network of protected areas. Working in close partnership with others offers a unique opportunity to create a new and more effective way of working that is needed in the Mediterranean today to create radical change.

AS: How is Oceana working to reduce plastics in Europe?

PM: In July 2019, a new EU Directive on single-use plastics became legally binding, requiring all European Member States to include bans or other provisions to reduce waste from items like plastic cutlery, plastic bottles, and fishing gear into national law. This provided a perfect opportunity to limit the flow of plastics to the ocean.

We launched our new campaign to reduce single-use plastics reaching the ocean in early 2020 and decided to focus on two countries – Spain and Denmark.

In Spain, with a population of 47 million and 80 million tourists each year, there is an increasing concern about plastics, so we have been targeting the government to implement a more ambitious version of the EU Directive. We have made some strides and are hopeful that Spain will include additional plastic items in their law such as banning the mass release of balloons. Additionally, research from expeditions has helped us unveil the hidden impact of plastic pollution in the deep sea.

In Denmark, where the population is aware and highly critical of plastics, we are pushing the government for legislation that would be implemented faster and go further than the minimum provisions in the EU Directive. Danes are heavy consumers of coffee, so we have chosen iconic take-away coffee cups to make the case for implementing measures, such as putting pressure on companies to provide reusable alternatives, banning disposable plastic containers for on-site consumption, and transitioning to refillable cups at major events, among others.

To support our campaign and draw attention to the scope and consequences of plastic pollution at sea, we have also used our wealth of underwater photos, film, and data from our expeditions to call for urgent action from politicians, scientists, and citizens.

AS: Brexit continues to impact fisheries in Europe. What’s the current situation for European fisheries, and what can we expect in the years ahead?

PM: The good news is that within the last decade, the overfishing rate in European Atlantic waters has dropped from roughly 66% to 42% thanks to the EU Common Fisheries Policy and cooperation of Member States. It is essential that this trend continues and accelerates after Brexit so that overfishing finally becomes a thing of the past and marine ecosystems are given the chance to rebound and build resilience to climate change.

After intense negotiations in 2020, the EU and the UK finally reached the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), establishing a solid basis for bilateral cooperation in the years to come. Oceana welcomed the fisheries component of the deal as a positive first step for the shared marine ecosystems. We were particularly encouraged that Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) was included in the agreement as one of the main objectives, as well as a commitment to follow the best available scientific advice.

Oceana is urging the EU and the UK to implement the agreement and live up to their own laws and international commitments. Our constant challenge is the fishing industry’s influence on politicians, both in the UK and the EU, their short-termism and focus on socio-economic impacts, and a general tendency to undermine science.

In the coming months, the EU and the UK are to jointly set over 70 catch limits for shared stocks in the NE Atlantic and the North Sea. They are required by TCA to reach an agreement for 2022 by December 10, 2021. Whereas most of the key commercial stocks for which MSY advice exists have already reached a sustainable level of exploitation, a number of depleted populations in mixed fisheries have zero catch advice and/or lack assessment, which complicates management.

Oceana urges both the UK and the EU to increase their efforts and provide precautionary approach for those neglected stocks. We are keeping in constant contact with the decision-makers in the UK and the EU, amplifying our efforts by leading and coordinating NGOs, and enhancing our campaign with communication actions.

AS: What’s next for Oceana in Europe?

PM: Europe is a highly regulated continent, and most European countries have strong laws to protect nature, sustainably manage fishing, and rebuild thriving ocean life. But our Achilles heel in Europe is implementation and enforcement.

As the existential threat posed by climate change becomes increasingly urgent, Oceana will ramp up protections for marine habitats that store carbon, regulate our climate, and help marine life resist the now unavoidable changes caused by ocean warming and acidification. We will fight for a full ban on the destructive practice of bottom-trawling inside areas designated to protect those habitats, and in other important areas such as the coastal zone. And we will advocate for strong requirements to restore areas that were previously impacted by these destructive practices.

We will also continue to shine a light on overfishing and illegal fishing. By exposing the continued flouting of existing laws and showing how the lack of transparency in fishing activities enables this, we will steadily reduce the dark corners of the ocean where illegal fishers can hide. European vessels operate all around the world, and European governments have a responsibility to ensure that they do so legally and responsibly.

In closing, I’d like to share a quote from Sir David Attenborough, and which helps me to look to the future with optimism and which I hope inspires others too.

‘The ocean’s power of regeneration is remarkable – if we just offer it the chance… we are in reach of a whole new relationship with the ocean – a wiser, more sustainable relationship. The choice lies with us.’