Mike Cohen – NFFO Chairman - Personal remarks to the NFFO AGM, held this year in London in Fishmongers Hall
In just a few minutes I cease not only to be the Chairman of the NFFO, but also - for the time being,…
The referendum on 23rd June, which decided that UK should leave the EU, represents a seismic change for the UK fishing industry. We are taking the view that there may be risks and pitfalls associated with this monumental change of direction but overall, this is a huge opportunity to reshape the management of our fisheries to the great benefit of our fishing industry and coastal communities. The Common Fisheries Policy has taken us down many blind alleys over the years. Now a new era beckons. This will not be without its own challenges; but the very fact that the fickle and cumbersome European co-decision process will no longer be the arbiter of our fate, is tremendously liberating.
It has been some ten weeks since the referendum and as you might expect, the Federation has been very active. Our Executive Committee met soon after the referendum on 12th July and agreed in broad outline our policy approach to the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. A working group has been established to develop detailed positions on the many aspects of fisheries policy that will be affected by Brexit. Two meetings of the group have already been held and it will continue to meet regularly for the foreseeable future. All final decisions on NFFO policy will continue to be made by the Executive Committee.
The Federation’s senior officers have already met with the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, and will be in regular contact with Defra officials for the duration of the negotiations. Today’s meeting with UK, Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, is also an important opportunity to signal fishermen’s expectations of what we want and hope to emerge from the forthcoming negotiations. We will also be meeting the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom next week. As you can see, we are heavily engaged at the highest levels.
Whilst we certainly see the future of our fisheries being based on cooperation and collaboration with those countries that we share stocks with, we also see Brexit as an opportunity to reset quota and access arrangements to address the anomalies that have persisted since the early days of the CFP.
We are currently working hard on defining our priorities for the negotiations ahead but the bottom line is our belief that the quota shares held by the UK should broadly reflect the fish resources that are located in our waters.
We know the Brexit negotiations will be complex and sometimes arduous. However, fishing has high public and political visibility and is likely to be used by many as a litmus test on which the success of Brexit success will be judged.
The outcomes of the Brexit negotiations will be affected by many, many, factors but one over which we as an industry do have direct control is the extent to which we can speak with a single, clear, credible and coherent voice.
Being released from the strictures of the Common Fisheries Policy should afford a great many opportunities to reshape the rules under which we as an industry operate. Some examples could be:
⦁ To secure an exclusive 12 mile zone for our coastal fishermen
⦁ To reset our national quota shares to more fairly reflect the fish caught in our waters
⦁ To escape from the blunt control of Brussels over the detail of fisheries management
⦁ To re-shape our domestic fisheries to our own priorities
⦁ To design and implement our own pathway to stable, profitable and sustainable fisheries
There is much to play for and work is well under way.
Modernising inshore management within the protection of an exclusive 12 mile zone will provide a range of opportunities to do things better. The EU requirement for vessels above 10 metres to carry logbooks was built on by our own authorities and this ultimately created an artificial boundary that has skewed both fleet development and fishermen’s behaviours. Outside the rigidity and conformity of the CFP it may be possible to radically change inshore fisheries management for the better. The fundamental laws of fisheries won’t change: there needs to be a balance between fishing capacity and available resources if anything is to work. But for instance, it is worth exploring whether there are parts of the under-10 fleet whose impact is so slight that they could be treated as de minimis and be treated accordingly in terms of quota exemptions and much lighter restrictions.
Producer organisations – collectives of fishermen for quota management and marketing purposes - have been one of the great success stories of the last 20 years, developing sophisticated ways to obtain quota to keep their members fishing and marketing their catch. How to ensure that POs continue to perform these valuable services in the changed circumstances that Brexit will bring, is an important area of work.
Prior to the referendum, the Federation was already engaged with Defra and the MMO in defining a coherent strategy for the future of English fisheries, taking into account all their diversity and complexity. This work will continue but will take place within a dramatically altered regulatory landscape.
What will a discard ban tailored to the requirements of the UK look like? We already know that the EU landing obligation has the capacity to cause serious chokes in mixed fisheries. UK ministers have already signalled their intention to retain a discard ban post Brexit but what form will it take given that post Brexit there will be no requirement to slavishly follow EU legislation in this area? This is another area in which the NFFO will be concentrating its efforts.
The failures of the CFP have been well documented over the years, not least in the Commission’s own Green Papers that preceded each of the reforms in 2003 and 2013. Wrong turnings, unintended consequences and a huge gulf between aspiration and delivery have been the hallmarks of a top-down, over-centralised system. These have been recognised and recorded. In understanding the limitations and shortfalls of the CFP, however, it is important, however, not to ignore what has been achieved.
Despite the wrong turnings and perverse outcomes, right across the North East Atlantic and across all of the main species groups, the exploitation rate has been brought within safe levels; not only this, but the official scientific view is that our fisheries are well on track to deliver high long term yields. It has been a painful journey getting to this point and it is important that whatever reformulated management arrangements arrive as a result of Brexit that we do not lose the progress that has been made.
In the meantime….
EU law and the CFP will apply to the UK fishing industry up to the point at which the UK exits the EU. The EU landings obligation will continue to be rolled out, adding new species and fisheries each year. A new Technical Conservation Regulation is in the pipeline, as are multi-annual management plans for the North Sea. Further measures on seabass may be in the pipeline and rolling out further marine protected areas. All these will require attention because they affect our members’ livelihoods in the here and now; but also because elements of them may find their way into UK legislation post-Brexit. The Federation cannot afford to take its eye off the ball on these short-term issues.
The EU’s approach to the concept of stock policies is a good example. There is no reason why fishermen would object to policies which bring high yields and high quotas. It has only been when the concept of Maximum Sustainable Yield has been misused and applied as dogma rather than as a broad and flexible aspiration, that resistance within the industry has built. This is an immediate issue as the rigid and inflexible MSY timetable, if accepted, will force drastic cuts in many quotas for next year despite a steady increase in biomasses across the board.
Similarly with the precautionary approach: all can agree that it is not wise to until every piece of evidence is in place before taking action; but the repeated cuts in quota for data-poor stocks that have caused serious socio-economic harm in, for example the skates and rays fisheries. The same is true of zero TACs and unrealistic bycatch limits for spurdog and bass. This has been the opposite of the progressive and flexible fisheries management that we require and it requires the Federation’s active intervention both now and in relation to the management of our fisheries beyond Brexit.
Until Brexit, the EU landing obligation represented the biggest change to the CFP since the Policy was established. For that reason, the NFFO has spent an enormous amount of time trying to make its implementation workable. Dealing with the issue of potential chokes in mixed fisheries has been at the forefront of our concerns, and some important progress has been made, with more to be done. Brexit will mean that after the UK has left the European Union, the EU landing obligation will no longer apply to UK fishing vessels or to UK waters. However, the signs are that the UK will want to retain its own variant of the discard ban and there is obviously another job of work to be done, jointly with officials in defining exactly what that will mean in practice.
Shellfish is a policy area that has been relatively lightly touched by the CFP. Nevertheless, it has suffered from inertia and lack of direction despite its huge contribution to the economic wellbeing of the industry. At the request of the NFFO, Defra is now in the process of establishing a Shellfish Strategy Group that will hopefully provide this vital sector with a sense of direction, in the face of challenges such as the MSY objective and increasing reliance on formal stock surveys. A data subgroup has already met to identify gaps in our knowledge on shellfish and to work with scientists and shell-fishermen to address them.
As someone who operates a vessel at the smaller end of the spectrum, I am acutely aware of the pressures, concerns and aspirations of the small-scale sector. I was proud of the work done by the Federation a couple of years ago to successfully fight of the Commission’s proposal to ban small-scale drift nets because of enforcement problems in Italy! The NFFO swung into action and the ban has been on the back burner ever since – leaving our sustainable small-scale fisheries to continue unmolested. This example told us much. It told us that despite the CFP reforms, a capricious and ill-informed Commissioner could potentially jeopardise a legitimate fishing activity on a whim. It told us that, whatever the issue, the NFFO would be found in the thick of the action, taking the lead and coordinating opposition to stupid and unfair policies. It also told us that well-marshalled rational arguments and a strong evidence-base could turn the political tide against the Commission.
It was an issue facing the small scale drift nets then; it could be issues affecting larger vessels tomorrow: The NFFO was created to fight for fishermen, wherever on the coast they are based; whatever fishing method they use and whatever the size of their vessel. The Federation’s work on shellfish policy, on drift nets, on salmon and on marine protected areas have all been directly focused on protecting the livelihoods of small scale fishermen. Fleet diversity is one of our industry’s great strengths and all parts of it are valuable.
Have you noticed that there are fewer media scare stories about fishing? There is still the odd ignorant comment made about depleted fish stocks that defies all the scientific evidence and still issues that have been taken out of context. But the Tsunami of distortions and manufactured crises has definitely waned and I think that it is fair to attribute this at least partly, to the work of the Federation and its partnership with communications specialists Acceleris. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hasn’t been seen on the fishing scene since he and his Fish Campaign were taken apart by the NFFO on Newsnight. That wouldn’t have happened without a great deal of legwork by the NFFO/Acceleris team in securing the interest of sympathetic journalists to presenting the other side of the story.
There will always be the noisy 5%, those who from obsession, or because they are paid by charitable trusts. They will continue to cry wolf because they are paid to but I think that the NFFO can take some credit for bringing most of the mainstream media back to portraying the fishing industry as it should be: hard working and committed individuals doing a difficult job in sometimes arduous circumstances.
Following an NFFO initiative, the MMO launched a campaign earlier this year to address the growing problem of fishing for profit from unlicensed vessels. The campaign is initially centred on the shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels which buy fish caught in unlicensed vessels and sold through the back door. Letting these retail outlets know that this is not a victimless crime is the first step. Targeted enforcement with high visibility to name and shame the culprits, will follow if the practice continues.
Safety and Training
With two important pieces of legislation looming on the horizon, the Work in Fishing Convention and the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping in fisheries, it has been essential for us to ensure that these legislative measures are practical and achieve their intended improvements to safety and training.
The Federation has worked closely with a commercial company to design and develop a man over board dummy that is easy to use, simple to store and cheap to purchase. This initiative was started in response to a recommendation from the Marine accident Investigation Branch and shows how the NFFO are innovative and committed to improving safety for all fishermen.
Crew welfare has become a major concern for many owners and whilst the press are desperately pointing the finger at the fishing industry with little validation, we have sought to improve our understanding of the issues faced and solutions to the welfare issues our members are facing. Collaborating with the leading charity Human Right at Sea, we have established a strong understanding of the social and ethical issues in fisheries around the world and are working with them to help our members and fellow fishermen to be aware of the technical issues and be leaders for fishermen around the world.
Marine Protected Areas
The Federation has been working hard to ensure fisheries management measures within MPAs are introduced only when informed by proper levels of evidence. This work included the completion of a major piece of research to measure the nature of fishing seabed impacts according to individual gear components and taking into account the effects of natural disturbance. In the case of new potential MPA proposals for harbour porpoise and other highly mobile species, the Federation has pressed the case firmly with government that they are only designated with proper justification. Overall, the Federation has done much to swing the government away from a tick-box exercise approach towards a process based on evidence.
We live in interesting times. There will be challenges ahead. This is fishing: there are always challenges.
But there are opportunities too and what we make of those opportunities will be largely up to us. We are an extraordinarily diverse industry, with small-boats fishing from the beach up to very large vessels fishing in distant waters. The NFFO exists to give all of those fishermen and vessel owners a voice where it counts: where the decisions affecting our futures are decided.
The locus where those decisions are made may now change but our responsibility in delivering the industry’s view has not.
The clarity of that message that we deliver will help to secure our aims and it is natural and understandable that our political masters will look to the only body that even attempts to speak on behalf of the whole industry – the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations – our name speaks of our purpose, our aim and who we are.