This was a different kind of December Council in a number of important ways. Many delegations…
We can expect the usual crop of apocalyptic predictions from the mainstream media and professional doom-mongers to accompany the Commission’s launch of its reform proposals on 13th July.
We have become used to hysterical assertions based on little more than prejudice and selective use of facts to meet their own agendas.
In fact, the most recent advice released by the International Council for Exploration of the Seas paints a very different picture; as does the European Commission Policy Statement on its approach to setting TACs and quotas for 2012. The Commission states plainly, “European Fish Stocks are improving”.
ICES advice can be found at http://www.ices.dk/advice/icesadvice.asp. The generally positive tone of the scientific assessments for many commercial stocks is qualified by a handful of fisheries that to date that have proved resistant to a decade of management measures. As these include fisheries that have been subject to the most intense and comprehensive conservation measures, they naturally pose questions about the instruments being used achieve recovery, such as quota reductions and days-at sea restrictions.
In the North Sea, haddock, whiting, plaice and sole are all on strong upward trends and ICES will be revisiting the saithe assessment this summer as there are significant questions whether it really bucks the trend, or is the victim in an anomaly in the assessment. Cod, haddock and whiting in the Celtic Sea are rebuilding so rapidly that emergency measures are under consideration to avoid a massive increase in discards resulting from the combination of restrictive quotas and large incoming year-classes. Even in the Irish Sea and West of Scotland where the cod assessments remain troublesome there is good news on other stocks. Overall, the herring and mackerel stocks remain strong.
It is important that we do not fall into the same trap as the media, and some of the less responsible environmental NGOs, to exaggerate and over-generalise the evidence. Despite more positive news on incoming recruitment, there are other stocks in which the trends are not so positive. In some fisheries rapidly rebuilding stocks carry problems of their own. The paradox of high levels of haddock and whiting appearing in the same areas in which cod populations remain low, poses management challenges as to how the former can be exploited without negative consequences for the cod.
One strand runs through all of these examples. It is that, despite the recovery that is now evident in the scientific advice, that recovery has taken a long time. Fisheries management measures under a highly centralised CFP have been blunt and often counter-productive. The absence of a responsive, adaptive management regime has impeded and still impedes recovery.
It is for this reason that despite the improvement in EU fish stocks, the NFFO will not be arguing for the status quo in the forthcoming reform of the CFP. On the contrary, we will be arguing for radical change.
Moving From a Centralised Management System
The Commission’s Green Paper on CFP Reform analysed the performance of the Common Fisheries Policy and concluded that one of its central failings has been that it is over-centralised, rigid and inflexible. The classic example is the Technical Conservation Regulation (850/98), widely recognised to a mass of contradictions but which has resisted all attempts at change because devising technical rules that make sense across widely diverse fisheries and fleets and sizes of vessels is mission impossible. Effective fisheries management demands more tailored measures at the level of each fishery.
And without reform the situation is about to get worse. The arrival of co-decision making in which the European Parliament has a say in all fisheries decisions except setting TACs, raises the spectre of a decade of paralysis in fisheries legislation.
Decentralisation and the transfer of responsibilities to the member states at regional seas level and to the fishing industry was an important theme in the Green Paper. However from the various drafts of the reform proposals in circulation, the signs are that the Commission’s primary idea of decentralisation is to delegate responsibility from the Council of Ministers and European Parliament to the Commission itself. This is likely to meet strong resistance from the member states, the European Parliament (who are already engaged in a bitter power struggle with the Commission over who has jurisdiction over management plans) and the fishing sector along with those who see the need for a genuine decentralisation of the CFP.
Elements of Reform
Some of the main elements of the reform proposals are outlined below with our comments:
Maximum Sustainable Yield as a conservation target with deadline (2015)
Maximum Sustainable Yield is a theoretical concept designed with single stock fisheries in mind. The architects of the WSSD in Johannesburg in 2002 were careful to add that depleted fish stocks should be rebuilt to MSY levels by 2015 where possible. This qualification is important because the application of MSY to fisheries that exploit mixed stocks (such as many of ours) is problematic. It may not be possible or desirable to have all stocks at MSY all the time and a rigid legal framework (as opposed to a political commitment) imposes an unwelcome and ultimately unhelpful rigidity.
Elimination of Discards through an obligation to land the whole catch
Discards are a waste of the resource and are terrible for the reputation of the fishing industry. There is more than one reason why discards occur and in recent years substantial progress has been made in improving gear selectivity and encouraging consumers to try less popular species. A major source of discards lies with fisheries legislation itself. The Commission’s proposal that all fish caught should be landed within a fixed timeline side-steps the real practical issues associated with such an approach. The English fleet has reduced its discards by 50% over the last decade. Continuing the progress that has already been made is a sounder and in the end more effective approach than the superficial and media focussed “justban it” policy proposed by the Commission. Our immediate issue is whether the Commission’s proposals forTACS in 2012 will lead to a drastic increase in discards through the application of a 25% reduction in quotas where the scientific assessments are deemed to be “data poor”.
Multi-annual Management Plans focused on essential objectives, targets, boundaries and timeframes
The arrival of long term management plans are an entirely healthy development that move us away from reliance on a discredited annual cycle. At their best LTMPs are developed by the industry (through regional advisory councils) with scientists and fisheries managers. What is of concern in the Commission’s proposal in the potentially rigid framework that is suggested which if accepted would remove flexibility to deal with the practicalities and realities of implementation
Transferable fishing concessions mandatory for large-scale fleets – with transferability at national level
As the UK and a number of other member states already have quota management systems that are based on rights-based management this is less of a change for us, as currently proposed, than it will be for some other member states. Two issues are important. The first is safeguards against overconcentration where transferable concessions are extended to small-scale fisheries; the other is the period of the concession under a system of use rights. The Commission proposes that a 15 year notice of recall will apply and that should be compatible with investment in the industry.
Moving Away from Fleet-related subsidies
The UK fleets have for many years been at the lower end of the list of recipients of fleet subsidies – and we have an aging fleet as a consequence. One area where fleet subsidy remains an effective tool is in the removal of over-capacity through well designed decommissioning schemes.
Empowerment of Producers Organisations to increase their role and responsibility on production and marketplanning with an emphasis in sustainable fisheries resource management
This is potentially a very positive development in line with the NFFO’s strong advocacy of a transfer of responsibility from prescriptive micro-management to a system based on approved and audited sustainable fishing plans.
Expanded role for (regional) Advisory Councils
This too is very welcome as the RACs have proved their worth in providing coherent, evidence based advice. What is missing from the proposals is any clear idea about how effective regional management is to be achieved. This is strange given the prominence of the concept in the Green Paper and is probable due to the legal complexities of allowing decision making powers at regional level when the Treaties are focused only on European and member state levels.
We don’t doubt that with the publication of the Commission’s proposals we are now entering a period of complex and difficult negotiations. The goal is a more flexible decentralised CFP. But it is also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As it has done from the outset of the reform process, the NFFO will continue to play a vigorous part.