Chairman’s Report - 2008

13th August 2008 in NFFO

National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations

Chairman’s Report - 2008

Fuel Crisis

In recent years the fishing industry has faced more than its fair share of tribulations. It is true to say however, that these have been dwarfed by the scale of the crisis brought about by the dramatic increase in fuel costs. The rise in the world price of oil has had ramifications across the world and across the whole economy. However, as primary producers who, in the main, sell their product through the auction system, fishing vessels are uniquely vulnerable to the rise in fuel costs. Unlike many other industries, we have no scope to pass on higher costs down the supply chain through some kind of surcharge. It is for this reason that fishing vessels across the fleet have face a viability crisis and why fishing industry demonstrations have been seen across Europe this year.

The fuel crisis has meant a period of intense Federation activity in which some other issues have had to take a back seat for the time being. Our main focus of attention in this most difficult of times has been to secure a package of government support that would provide vessel operators with options. For the operators of some types of vessel that are intrinsically incompatible with an era in which fuel costs are over $140 per barrel, this means an option to decommission; for others it means an option to alter their vessels, gear or pattern of fishing to reduce fuel dependency. In responding to commercial pressures vessel owners have already done a great deal to reduce their fuel costs but there comes a point when additional investment is required if further substantial reductions are to be achieved.

In these circumstances the NFFO has argued for a package of support that:

  • Recognises the immediate viability crisis facing many fishing vessels
  • Provides fishing enterprises, through an enhanced and adapted European Fisheries Fund, with options to adapt to the new economic realities - or to leave the fleet through decommissioning
  • Ensures that industry support is provided evenly and equally across the European fleets in a way that does not distort competition and in particular does not leave the UK fleet, or any part of it, at a disadvantage.

Whilst this Federation has been highly critical of the European Commission in the past, and remains critical in many other policy spheres, it has to be recognised that the Commission has reacted with speed, insight and determination to this present crisis. A legislative package was tabled that would:

  • Provide an EC wide response to an EC wide problem and avoid the chaos of each member state taking individual initiatives
  • allow member states to provide their fleets with emergency support
  • provide flexibility within the European Fisheries Fund to reorder national priorities to address the consequences of the fuel crisis, including decommissioning, partial decommissioning and re-engining

Although the EC support package provides the beginnings of a reasonable framework to begin to tackle the fuel crisis, the problem in all of this for us is the degree to which the UK Government will play its part. To date ministers have been highly resistant to providing the kind of short term emergency aid (the so called de minimis) that is being made available in some other member states. Defra appears to be committed to re-prioritising the UK EFF operational plan to make additional funding available to the caching sector but much at this stage remains unclear.

The worst-case scenario for us is an outcome that leaves us dealing both with the consequences of high fuel costs and the effects of distorted competition resulting from our own Government’s unwillingness to prioritise the fishing industry.

Cod Recovery

Cod recovery has dominated fisheries for the best part of a decade, impacting well beyond those fisheries that have historically targeted cod. The sheer number of measures – closed areas, more selective gear, landing and reporting controls, restrictive TACs, effort control, vessel decommissioning – to name a few, means that is impossible to judge which have worked and which haven’t. The NFFO, through the RACs, successfully called for a review of the EC cod recovery plan and played a central role on the Cod Symposium in March 2007 which drew together fishermen and world class experts to share their experience. Some of the results of that work can be seen in the Commission’s proposal for a revised cod recovery plan to be decided later this year. Whilst there is still a range of concerns (in particular the overreliance on blunt measures like TACs and days at sea restrictions and a propensity to generate rather than minimize discards) there has been movement away from unrealistic targets and there is scope to adapt and improve the plan in the future. Whilst in the North Sea there are strong signs of recovery, these are not yet evident in the Irish Sea or West of Scotland. In the Celtic Sea, which to date has remained outside the cod recovery plan the fishery trends are in a positive direction and the priority is to keep this highly mixed fishery out of the straight jacket of effort control. All this points to the need for the cod rebuilding measures that take are adapted to the local realities rather than being in place for bureaucratic convenience.

Fisheries Science Partnerships

One of the breakthroughs of the last decade has been the establishment of fisheries science partnerships, in which deficiencies and shortcomings in the scientific data have been addressed jointly by the industry and CEFAS scientists. The funding provided by Defra for this important initiative has been pivotal to its success and the announcement that the FSP will continue for another 3 years, reflecting the success of the project, has been greeted with a sense of relief. The FSP model has been emulated elsewhere in the UK and now across Europe and, as the work has generated a number of time-series, the output is increasingly being integrated into the ICES stock assessments. In this way the industry based FSPs can complement and strengthen the more formal stock assessment techniques used by ICES.

Industry Reputation

Over the last 12 months fishing has again been the target of much poorly informed criticism. Attacking fishing seems to have become the first resort of lazy journalism and the industry has been demonised by the kind of environmentalism that desperately needs a demon. In fact, in recent years the industry has made giant strides to meet the higher environmental expectations that society now holds. In 2006, the Federation produced a paper “Sustainability Initiatives in Fishing” that described some of the many initiatives being undertaken by the fishing industry itself to strike the right balance between food security, food safety and minimising the environmental impact of fishing. The paper is already out of date, overtaken by new initiatives such as cod avoidance plans and discard reduction initiatives. The NFFO is constantly engaged in a constructive dialogue with the more responsible environmental bodies such as WWF and Birdlife International and the major players in the supply chain like Marks and Spencer.

Discards

Discards damage the industry’s reputation, are a waste of a scarce resource and can seriously inhibit recovery plans. There are a number of different reasons for discarding both economic and regulatory and these vary over time, place and fishery. The Federation both directly and through RAC advice has played an active role in helping to ensure that the Commission’s discards initiative is both effective and takes account of the realities. Discards are a shared problem and it is important that the Commission and member states also recognize their responsibilities to reduce discards. The Federation’s own initiative for individual vessel cod avoidance plans has been incorporated into EC legislation but as a radical departure from the old, tired, and very blunt formula of restrictive quotas and cuts in days-at-sea, practical implementation has not been supported to the degree it requires. To date it has been another case of a good idea spoiled by poor implementation.

Marine Conservation Zones

Marine conservation zones in various forms are going to be a feature of the marine environment in the future, either as part of the Habitats Directive, EU Marine Strategy or the UK Marine Bill. The degree to which these will be damaging to the industry’s interests by denying access to important fishing grounds will depend on whether the industry’s concerns are taken into account. Our initial experience of the designation of marine protected areas under the Habitats Directive has not been good. As socio-economic impact is explicitly disallowed from the process, the areas designated are much larger than needed to safeguard the protected feature and some of the protected features (like highly mobile sand-banks) are just bizarre. The Federation is adopting a highly active approach to ensure that the enthusiasm for marine parks does not drive fishermen to extinction. Where vessels are of limited range this fear is far from rhetoric.

TACs and Quotas

Within the CFP system annual decisions on quotas are central to the viability of the fleet in the forthcoming 12 months. It is for this reason that the Federation puts so much effort each year into preparing for the annual quota negotiations. From ensuring, through fishery science partnerships, that the ICES assessments reflect the actual abundance of stocks, to EU Norway negotiations, to the December Council of Ministers, an enormous amount of Federation work goes into the decisions that set the TACs. The Federation’s constituent organisations likewise are heavily involved in scrutinising the science, analysing the EU policy statement, studying the proposals and talking to officials and ministers to ensure that the results are as close to our aspirations as possible. Despite some improvements the annual process remains a difficult and flawed process that can deliver perverse decisions that often require further remedial work in the new year.

Separate Quota System in Scotland

It was always recognised that the true test of devolution would arrive when the administrations in London and Edinburgh were of different complexions. The arrival of a minority, SNP-led, government in Scotland and the decision of that administration to use fishing to further its aim of establishing full Scottish independence, has seriously destabilised the quota management system. Paradoxically, the opening salvo in what is bound to become a bloody affair, a moratorium on the transfer of quota and licences outside Scotland, has primarily hurt the Scottish fleet, as asset values have plummeted and the banks have withdrawn support from a number of projects. The Federation does not expect to have much influence in Scotland over what is a politically driven initiative but has never-the-less pointed out the coercive character of the proposals. If there is to be a separate quota system in Scotland it should be populated by vessels whose owners have actively opted to join. Otherwise vessels should remain within the UK system. Operating two quota management schemes within a single member state was always going to be a recipe for chaos and the critical question is the degree to which any new arrangements are the subject of agreement between the two administrations or whether they can be imposed unilaterally. As any change will have profound implications for the NFFO’s members this issue will remain a major priority.NFFO Services Limited

It is a paradox that the high cost of oil, which is causing such difficulties for the industry, has stimulated offshore exploration and development of marginal fields and this has had a positive effect on the revenue generating potential of the Federation’ commercial wing, NFFO Services Limited. The benefits of this work are distributed as widely as possible, through the allocation of guard-ship work, by subsidising the representative work of the NFFO and through grants totalling £100,000 to member organisations through the NFFO Training Trust Fund.

Salmon

Despite a partial buy-out of licences and a continuation of a twenty year old campaign by anglers to close the commercial net fishery, this remains a viable fishery operated by individuals who are determined to continue salmon fishing. Although overtures have begun for a further buyout, the NFFO will continue to ensure that any arrangements adopted are fair and no undue pressure is placed on any individual who wants to continue. The immediate focus of our Salmon Committee is a carcass tagging scheme, which if implemented would be highly discriminatory.

Seafish

Seafish has funded a full time post within the NFFO during 2007/8. Elizabeth Bourke, an economist and management specialist has proven invaluable in preparing Federation position papers ranging from cod recovery, the European Fisheries Fund, fisheries within food policy, the Marine Bill, discards, effort control and EU co-decision making. The main purpose of the post is to strengthen the evidence base for the Federation’s representations and in this it has been very successful.

Communications

Whilst the Federation has made important progress in initiatives such as regional advisory councils, fisheries science partnerships and greater stakeholder involvement in decision making, there can be a wide gulf between these and similar initiatives and many grass-roots fishermen. The NFFO’s one year, FIFG funded, communications project aimed to find ways of closing that gap. Julia Dennison, a communications expert has worked on new and improved communications channels and Executive Committee member, Alan McCulla, has undertaken a series of well publicised port meetings to determine what fishermen considered is needed. Both parts of the project have been very useful and it is intended to seek additional funding to take the project further. Nothing is more important for the NFFO, and for the future of the industry, to ensure that fishermen’s voices are heard in the corridors of power or wherever key decisions are being made and that is the core idea behind the project.

Margin of Tolerance

Throughout the year the Federation has continued to campaign for the Commission to recognise that compliance with the 8% margin of tolerance, on a consistent basis, is not achievable. The Commission appears now to recognise that there is a problem and has suggested that the issue will be dealt with in a forthcoming review of the Control Regulation. Against this background it is wholly unacceptable that fishermen are continuing to be prosecuted even where it can be demonstrated there can be no intent because the fishing on the species concerned is unrestricted by quota at the time.

Special Advisor

The Federation’s work has again been strengthened immeasurably throughout the year by the contribution of the NFFO’s Special Advisor, Mr Barry Edwards

Windfarms

Our experience of phases 1 and 2 of the development of the UK’s offshore wind-farm programme has not been good. Consultation has been of the cosmetic variety and in the drive to develop renewable sources of energy, the Government and offshore wind developers have ridden roughshod over fishermen’s livelihoods. Some examples of good practice can be found but there is a very telling contrast between the collaborative coexistence between the oil/gas industry and fishermen and the dictatorial winner-takes-all approach that we have seen in the offshore renewable sector. This will be a major issue for the NFFO as Phase III approaches.

Regional Advisory Councils

RACs are now an established part of the landscape and are likely to be so for the foreseeable future. Each has developed its own personality and exhibits its own strengths and specialities. As well as providing regular considered advice to the Commission, RACs have become the main interface between the fishing industry and ICES scientists. The NFFO at an early stage took the decision to work vigorously within the RACs that were in part, established in response to the NFFO’s calls for a regionalisation of the CFP and a platform for stakeholder input. Influence is an intangible and difficult thing to measure but there are signs that Commission thinking has been significantly shaped by the RACs on a number of critical issues. What is clear is that an organisation like the NFFO is more influential with allies than without them and the RACs provide a forum where those alliances can be forged.

Other Issues

The Federation is engaged in a wide range of issues for which there is no room in this brief summary. The Council Regulation on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, hygiene charges, aggregate dredging and pelagic payback arrangements are a few examples of other areas in which the NFFO has been active over the last 12 months.

Conclusion

The fishing industry faces possibly its greatest challenge. If as seems likely, oil prices remain high, the fleet will have to adapt to the new economic realities. The NFFO’s principal task is to ensure that Government plays a supportive and encouraging role in that transition rather than a disinterested or positively damaging role. The latter would be the case if it stood by to allow those fleets with state support to prosper and recover whilst ours staggered from crisis to crisis into collapse. The fishing industry ought to have a bright future. It is based on a renewable resource; our product is healthy and in demand, most stocks on which we depend are either at or heading in the direction of maximum sustainable yield. The basics of a profitable and sustainable future are in place – if our Government has the will and determination to ensure an orderly rather than a chaotic transition.