The European Fisheries Control Agency

by Eurofish
Susan Steele

A key partner in the fight for fisheries sustainability

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 3 2024

The sustainability of fisheries depends on legislation and its fair and harmonised implementation. EFCA plays a crucial role here in that it works together with EU Member States to ensure the uniform interpretation of rules and regulations to create a level playing field.

The European Fisheries Control Agency was established in 2005 to promote the highest common standards for fisheries control, inspection, and surveillance under the Common Fisheries Policy. The agency coordinates national control and inspection activities to ensure a level playing field across the EU regarding the implementation of European legislation. Moreover, the agency contributes to sustainable fisheries by policing compliance with conservation and management measures. It also cooperates with other EU agencies to support national authorities carry out their coast guard functions.

Training, joint deployments, species-specific campaigns among EFCA activities

In a 2020 paper[1], the authors Federica Cacciatore and Mariolina Eliantonio describe EFCA’s powers as advisory (advising the commission on regulatory matters in fisheries-related issues), enforcement (inspections of EU fishing vessels, operational coordination between the EU and the countries, joint deployment plans), and support (for the EU and national bodies in fisheries inspection research and development). Currently led by Dr Susan Steele, the executive director and an Irish national, the agency has seen regular improvements over the years in several metrics including improved cooperation between countries to deliver harmonised fisheries control, a more level playing field for fishers who are treated uniformly irrespective of where they come from and where they fish, and improvements in European fish stocks. The agency has joint deployment plans running in all the six sea basins in the EU. Member States work together creating and implementing these plans and then assessing their success. Together with the Member States, EFCA trains national staff seconded to the agency, and it also organises specific campaigns in coordination with the countries. For example, in the Mediterranean it runs seven specific campaigns per year, such as the campaign for highly migratory species and bluefin tuna, which covers all the Mediterranean Member States. These campaigns closely involve the countries, who are represented in the EFCA coordination centre in Vigo. Together with EFCA staff the Member States’ inspectors execute the campaign on the spot, which could include the use of aircraft or the deployment of one of the agency’s three vessels, the Ocean Sentinel, the Ocean Protector, or the Ocean Guardian.

The aim, says Dr Steele, is to deliver the same capacity building, training, and competences to the national inspectors no matter where they come from. If people are treated differently in different areas, then control and inspection does not work. This applies not only to EU members but also to the cooperation with third countries as EFCA also operates in areas that are managed by regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), including the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM). A recent example of cooperation with non-EU countries is the E-FishMed project that EFCA is implementing with support from southern European EU members for the benefit of five north African countries. The project will establish a virtual regional training academy to strengthen national and regional monitoring, control, and surveillance systems.

When cooperating with non-EU RFMO members, EFCA endeavours to create a level playing field. In fact, this year, for the first time, EFCA will have a joint deployment plan in the Indian Ocean. Information from the joint deployment plans is available on the EFCA website, in the agency’s annual report, and the multiannual work program. The figures include the number of inspections carried out at sea and on shore and the results of control activities including the number of suspected infringements detected and the ratio to the number of inspections. The data is arranged by year and by sea basin. Discerning a trend is not easy, however; in the Baltic Sea, for example, between 2014 and 2022 the ratio of suspected infringements to vessels inspected has fluctuated between 6% and 0.95% for at-sea inspections and between 1.5% and 3.4% for onshore inspections. Infringements are of many types and severities such as non-compliance with conservation measures, with recording and reporting obligations, or other types of non-compliance such as incorrect weighing of catches at landing, marketing without mandatory first sale, or failure to provide safe access to inspectors.

In a control operation inspectors study nets to determine whether they comply with legal requirements. Picture credit: EFCA

Monitoring fisheries contributes to revealing illegal activities in other spheres


One development that promises to have a significant impact on EFCA’s work is the introduction from this year of the new control regulation. Among other changes, this calls for small scale vessels to switch from paper logbooks to electronic recording methods which will simplify procedures both for the fishers and for the control authorities.

In addition to its fisheries control activities, EFCA works together with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency and the European Maritime Safety Agency to keep an eye on potentially illegal actions at sea. Data from drones, aircraft, or satellites that are used to monitor fishing can also uncover other activities and the three Agencies shares this information between them. EFCA’s key tasks, however, remain the joint deployment plans, the training of fisheries inspectors, and risk management for the cost-effective deployment of control means and implementation of activities to monitor and improve compliance. EFCA develops its own online tools for monitoring vessel activity which it then shares with the Member States. These tools provide inspectors with troves of current and historical information on fishing vessels. It also develops statistical tools to evaluate risks and identify which vessels or sectors it makes the most sense to inspect. As Dr Steele says, one cannot inspect all fishing vessels, nor would one want to, so it is necessary to make educated choices about which vessel should be inspected and this is what our models show us. Here too cooperation with the countries plays a role as they can each feed the models with data to make their conclusions more robust. Dr Steele expects that data from the remote electronic monitoring of vessels envisaged in the new control regulation will also contribute to the accuracy and reliability of EFCA’s statistical models.

While monitoring fishing footage from drones can also reveal illicit activities in other spheres such as smuggling. Picture credit: EFCA

If during an inspection, violations of the rules are identified, the case goes through national administration or courts, as EFCA does not have the authority to sanction offenders. While legal procedures vary widely from country to country, under European legislation the competent national authorities in the flag state shall impose points on fishing licence holders and fishing vessel captains for serious infringements. For repeated transgressions within a period the penalty gets progressively higher ultimately leading to the revocation of the license. The point system seeks to ensure that the same type of infringement wherever it takes place will be penalised to the same degree across the EU, thereby contributing to the creation of a level playing field. While most fishers are law abiding, whether the system deters even the most risk indifferent fisher is probably determined by what is at stake.

Catching the scofflaws depends on several factors of which technology is one. Progress in this area is rapid and continuous particularly in areas like satellite imaging. EFCA collaborates with EMSA, the European Union Satellite Centre and the European Space Agency, but Dr Steele points out that it is the efficiencies that are gained from working together, by pooling resources and not duplicating efforts, that give the most benefits, and not the latest technological advancement per se.

Sharing knowledge between countries helps improve practices everywhere

Among the projects EFCA is running is one where countries install remote electronic monitoring equipment on test vessels. Since each country takes a different approach there is much to be learned when EFCA collects and analyses the data from all the countries. Another project works with weighing systems and here too the knowledge generated by the countries can be used to optimise these systems across countries. This approach, whereby countries invest in technologies and share their experiences via EFCA, is efficient as it prevents reinvention of the wheel, and it benefits all involved. Technology is one area, where this shared approach has proved its worth. In addition,  Dr Steele says, in terms of compliance with regulations governing GDPR and artificial intelligence, it has also been very useful.

EFCA works closely with non-EU countries in the Mediterranean but also with the UK. Inspectors from Mediterranean countries are taken on board EFCA vessels and there are also physical and virtual meetings with counterparts in these countries. All agree on the importance of sustainable fisheries, and its implications for coastal areas. The challenge is how to achieve it given the limited resources. What should countries prioritise? How can fisheries be made sustainable most effectively? All countries need to address these questions, but in non-EU Mediterranean countries they acquire an added urgency given the resources available and the impacts of climate change which are particularly severe. With the UK, one of EFCA’s key roles is communication regarding fisheries control on both sides. A lack of communication can lead to a weakness in the system that can be exploited by people who want to fish illegally. The agency’s priority in the next years is the new control regulation which will see the extension of control technologies currently used on larger vessels to the entire fleet including the smaller vessels. We want to maintain the high level of trust and transparency with all our stakeholders, says Dr Steele, and ensure the harmonised implementation of the control regulation.

European Fisheries Control Agency
Edificio Odriozola, Avenida García Barbón, 4
E-36201 Vigo
Tel.: +34 986 12 06 10
Executive Director: Dr Susan Steele
Functions: Promote common standards for fisheries control, inspection, and surveillance; coordinate national control and inspection activities; monitor compliance with conservation and management measures; support national authorities coast guard functions.
Employees: 104

[1] Cacciatore, F., & Eliantonio, M. (2020). Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Assessing the systems of controls of the European Fisheries Control Agency’s inspecting powers. In M. Scholten, & A. Brenninkmeijer (Eds.), Controlling EU Agencies: The Rule of Law in a Multi-jurisdictional Legal Order (pp. 215–233). Edward Elgar Publishing.

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