Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Oceana magazine. Click here to view the original story.
Born in Crete, Damanaki began her political career in the 1970s, when she helped lead the underground student opposition to the dictatorship in Greece. She served as speaker of the clandestine radio program broadcasting from the occupied National Technical University of Athens, where her voice became known as the voice of the uprising. She was subsequently imprisoned by the dictatorship.
Among other distinctions, Damanaki then went on to become a member of parliament at the age of 25 and the first woman ever to be elected vice-president of the Greek parliament. Damanaki is completing four years of service as the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, where she has spearheaded a complete overhaul of fisheries management in the European Union.
When did you become interested in the oceans and fisheries?
I have been living closely to the sea from my childhood, having been born in a Greek island, Crete. So you can imagine that the sea has always played a role in my life, and I have always been familiar with the concerns of coastal communities such as small-scale fishermen and their families. That was also why I was extremely pleased to have been tasked to work on maritime and fisheries at the European Commission in 2009. Oceans are like the air we breathe: they are essential for life. We are already today seeing the consequences of us not taking care of them enough.
What accomplishment are you most proud of from your time as the Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries?
Let me put it this way: With the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, we radically changed the way fishing will be done in Europe for the next decades. We set the foundation so that overfishing and discarding fish can one day be a thing of the past. We stopped the top-down decisions from Brussels to make room for input from regional stakeholders and we introduced binding sustainable rules for international fisheries.
On maritime affairs, I hope to have helped create something new at European level: a true ocean policy. And we Europeans took a leading role when it comes to setting rules to manage and preserve the oceans. More jobs and economic opportunities can arise in the maritime sector, from ocean energy to biotechnology. Under one condition: we want sustainable growth, not a competition between growth and sustainability.
You led major reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy. How will these changes benefit European oceans and fisheries?
What I wanted to achieve with the reform was simple: to have more fish in the sea. Because this will benefit everybody at the same time: the fishermen, the oceans, and our future generations’ food supply. We are inseparable from the sea. For example, restoring fish stocks is not only healthy for our ecosystems, it also means more income for fishermen. With the measures we took, we have already tripled the number of fish stocks fished at sustainable levels in 2014 to 27. And for 2015, we can reach even 30 fish stocks fished sustainably. This is a massive achievement, which could soon mean 30 percent more jobs in the catching sector alone.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in reforming the Common Fisheries Policy?
I have said from day one that you cannot negotiate with biology. If the fish stocks collapse, because we have not followed scientific advice, then it is too late. So it was challenging to get everybody around the table and convince all stakeholders that reform is necessary for the sustainable future of fisheries and the need to put an end to overfishing. What was most difficult for me was to deal with the wheeling and dealing that went on behind closed doors in the Fisheries Council between Ministers on how much fish is taken out of the sea in the annual fish quota negotiations. Today, there has been a true change of culture: we are no longer discussing if we should go for sustainable fisheries, but how quickly. This is new, and puts us on the right path.
How important are the oceans to European culture and life?
You only have to travel around Europe to see the impact that seas and oceans have on our everyday lives. The oceans are everywhere: in the things we eat, the things we buy, the jobs we have, the communities we live in, the places we go, and even the clothes we wear!
This is of course is even more obvious in those communities dotted along Europe’s sprawling coastlines. In these places, the local economy is ocean-dependent in one way or another, whether that is through tourism, aquaculture, fisheries, or even border controls. Small-scale fisheries in particular often are important for jobs — they hold together the social fabric of coastal communities and shape the cultural identity of many of Europe’s coastal regions. That’s why they need specific support and we have made sure to factor this into the reform. We recognize that the ocean is the lifeblood for many Europeans and we will continue to offer support to help local economies adapt to the changes in policies.
Have you seen Europe’s oceans change in your lifetime?
Absolutely. I was born near pristine coasts. I cannot see fish there anymore. I cannot swim wherever I want because the water is no longer as clear as it was then. Coastal erosion is present in Aegean Islands. I have seen it on my holidays there in the recent years. But of course we cannot stick to the past. People have to live. So I can understand the need for change. But the only way to us for survive is to reconcile ourselves with nature.
Do you feel hopeful about the future of the oceans and fisheries?
Look at the changes we have achieved in Europe within only a few years, with so many stakeholders and 28 governments around the table. We can also achieve change at the international level. We set important foundations to fight illegal fishing, to have stronger Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, and we have set incentives for countries we have fisheries partnerships with to fish sustainably. As soon as governments and stakeholders will feel the benefits of this, I’m optimistic that even more is possible. And more is necessary.
What is the most important thing we can do right now to restore fisheries and ocean health?
International cooperation is absolutely crucial. I believe we have to continue our clampdown on illegal fishing around the world, make sure that we apply the same sustainability principles to our work internationally, and continue to invest in marine knowledge to help us make smart decisions moving forward. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and work together to achieve radical policy changes.
Is there anything else you want to tell readers of Oceana?
Let me use this opportunity to congratulate Oceana on their tremendous effort to fight for sustainable fisheries and the health of our oceans. I have appreciated its contribution in our effort to reshape fisheries in Europe. We have established a warm relationship which I hope that we can keep alive in the future.
Correction notice, March 30, 2015: A previous version of this article said that Maria Damanaki was completing seven years of service as the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Damanaki served four.