"Flatlined", "stagnating", "at a standstill": these are some of the alarming descriptions applied to the current state of aquaculture in the European Union, in a new report by the EU Court of Auditors (ECA).
According to the report, despite an improved EU framework for the sustainable development of aquaculture in member states, including ploughing 1 billion euros of funding into the sector over a seven-year period, no tangible results have emerged.
"In fact, European aquaculture production actually seems to be at a standstill," the group warns.
“The EU has cast its nets wide for the aquaculture sector in recent years, as it is a major element of its Blue Economy strategy. But they remain disappointingly empty,” said ECA member Nikolaos Milionis, who led the audit.
Aquaculture is considered a key element of the EU’s Blue Economy strategy. It contributes to food security as well as being promoted by the European Green Deal, providing protein with a lower carbon footprint.
Aiming to secure long-term sustainability of aquaculture, in addition to social, economic and employment benefits, the EU has allocated a total of €2.2 billion to aquaculture since 2014.
Through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, it allocated €1.2 billion in the period 2014-2020, followed by a further €1 billion allocated in 2021-2027 by the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund.
However, the report states, "results are slow to appear and cannot yet be reliably measured".
The auditors note that the amount of funding the EU allocated exclusively to aquaculture for the 2014-2020 period was more than three times the total spent in 2007-2013.
However, they say, "neither the European Commission nor the member states demonstrated the need for such a large increase", and the auditors "have reason to believe that too much EU money was put on the table".
"The fact is that a large part of it has not been used, and member states may not be able to spend all available funding by 2023, which is the deadline for expenditure to be considered eligible," the auditors stated in a press release.
"A side-effect here is that, in practice, EU countries financed almost all projects, irrespective of their expected contribution to the EU’s objectives for aquaculture, whereas a more targeted hook-and-line approach might have yielded a bigger catch."
Overall EU aquaculture production has in fact "flatlined", according to the auditors, even decreasing in two of the largest producers, Italy and France.
Meanwhile, the number of aquaculture businesses in the EU is declining, and employment in the sector fell between 2014 and 2020 from approximately 40,000 people to around 35,000.
One of the key objectives of the funding was to develop environmentally-sustainable aquaculture, however, the auditors say, the situation is also worrying on this front.
Monitoring systems are weak, with no consistent indicators allowing auditors to assess the environmental sustainability of the sector - this despite sustainability being one of the main objectives of EU policy, the auditors note.
"Even more worrying are the data currently reported on the achievements of EU funds. These data are neither consistent nor reliable, with clearly overstated results, triple-counted values, and figures that fluctuate, depending on the reporting system selected," the auditors said.
"As a result, the auditors could not determine the EU funds’ contribution to the aquaculture sector’s environmental and social sustainability, or to its competitiveness."
The sustainable development of aquaculture (in environmental, economic and social terms) is one of the main objectives of the EU’s common fisheries policy.
In 2020, the EU’s total aquaculture production was 1.1 million tonnes, or less than 1 % of the global total. Spain, France, Greece and Italy are the main EU producing countries, accounting for about two-thirds of total EU production.
The auditors looked at the 2014-2020 period, as well as the provisions and programmes that had already been established for the 2021-2027 period at the time of the audit.
Special report 25/2023, “EU aquaculture policy: stagnating production and unclear results despite increased EU funding”, is available on the .