Chairman’s Report 2020

13th October 2020 in NFFO

We live in momentous times. 2020 will be remembered as the year of the pandemic. It will also be recorded also as a turning point in the history of the UK fishing industry, as we prepare for our future as an independent coastal state outside the Common Fisheries Policy.

Chairman’s Report 2020
Outgoing NFFO Chairman, Andrew Pascoe

Aspects of our future remain uncertain. The threat posed by the Covid virus has not disappeared and a resurgence is a real possibility, bringing another health emergency with serious economic consequences. The outcome of negotiations with the EU on the shape of our future economic relationship is at a critical stage. Here. Those talks and the autumn negotiations for the first annual fisheries agreements as an independent coastal state will be hugely significant.

The two national fishing federations have received assurances from the highest levels within Government that fishing is regarded as a matter of principle, deeply intertwined with the notion of sovereignty as the UK leaves the EU. We are therefore confident that the commitments that have been made on fishing will be honoured and reflected in any agreement reached. Europe’s response to the loss of the advantages on fishing that it has held for over forty years whilst the UK was tied into the Common Fisheries Policy, is another moving part in the adjustments currently under way, although it is difficult to see how withholding a trade agreement could do anything other than harm all parties.

The climactic events that we are currently living through bear out the well-worn but nevertheless true adage that in unity lies strength. The NFFO, your national organisation, played a leading role in securing tailored financial support from the Treasury for the fishing industry, as the effects of the virus took hold and markets evaporated. And the prominent place that the fishing industry currently holds in the Government’s negotiating priorities owes much to the concerted lobbying efforts of the NFFO with ministers, within Parliament and across the news media.

We can be proud, therefore, that in these testing times, we as an industry, diverse as we are, have stood united and firm, and have shaped the policy agenda. Balanced, coherent, and well-thought through positions which reflect the diversity of our industry always win in the end over populist rants. We only have influence with government and with legislators for as long as we are regarded as the credible and representative voice of the industry. My judgement is that in this critically important year, we as a Federation, have met those tests.

Independent Coastal State

Whether or not the UK and EU can agree a framework fisheries agreement in time to be ratified before the end of the year, the UK will by default, be an independent coastal state from 1st January and will already be negotiating as such this autumn.

The outcome of the referendum raised the realistic possibility of escaping from the Common Fisheries Policy, and the disadvantageous EC entry terms which have for put the UK at a structural disadvantage. The NFFO has worked solidly since that turning point to ensure that the UK secures the rights and responsibilities of an independent coastal state and the benefits which accrue to coastal state status.

This has meant, above all, working closely with Government on the UK’s negotiating objectives, as well as building a groundswell of support for the fishing industry in Parliament and across the country.

The Federation’s objectives have been and remain:

⦁ Quota shares which reflect the resources located in UK waters

⦁ Access arrangements to be negotiated as part of annual fisheries negotiations

⦁ Regulatory autonomy to allow the UK to develop its own distinctive fisheries policy outside the Common Fisheries Policy

⦁ An exclusive 12mile zone for UK fishers

⦁ As frictionless trade as can be obtained without compromising UK sovereignty and rights as an independent coastal state

Meetings with the UK’s Chief Negotiator, David Frost, the Secretary of State and the UK Fisheries Minister, have provided us with categorical assurances that a good outcome on fishing was amongst the UK’s top priorities and that fishing would not be traded for other priorities, as it was in the 1970s. The NFFO’s role now is to ensure that those unequivocal commitments are delivered.

Fisheries Bill

After 40 years of operating within the Common Fisheries Policy, the Fisheries Bill is necessary to equip UK ministers with the powers to manage fisheries within the UK EEZ after the end of the transition period which ends on 31st December 2020. The Federation has worked with ministers, Defra officials and legislators, to ensure that the lessons of the CFP have been learnt. Overloading primary legislation with too much prescriptive detail creating a rigid, inflexible, structure in which it is difficult to change policy direction, even when the evidence demands it, has been the principal flaw in the CFP. In general terms, the Bill, introduced into the House of Lords earlier this year, showed every sign of having learnt those lessons. In particular the concept of management plans customised for each fishery, promised a flexible and adaptive way to deliver sustainable and profitable fisheries. Well-intentioned but ultimately short-sighted amendments were adopted as the Bill passed through the Lords and the Federation, working closely with Parliamentary specialists Connect, worked hard through parliamentary briefings to overturn those amendments.

That work is ongoing.

Covid-19

The wrecking-ball which came through the world, the UK and our industry from February/ March onwards, amounted to the biggest health emergency since the First World War and the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the scale of the health crisis became clear, lockdown followed and in due course, the Treasury announced a suite of mitigation measures for businesses and for employees. Some parts of the fishing industry were impacted early, notably those parts of the shellfish sector dependent on the Chinese market. As the hospitality and catering markets closed in turn, It quickly became apparent that fishing, frequently fell between the gaps in Government support.

The NFFO made the case very early on for a dedicated industry/government Covid response group and once this was established, it became the conduit for the Federation’s efforts to ensure that the industry received the support necessary to ensure that businesses and crews survived the crisis intact. The inclusion of self-employed share fishermen in the Government’s support measures was welcomed but then a vigorous case had to be made to Treasury for a tailored support package to shore-up fishing businesses which had ongoing costs but no, or severely depleted, income as export, then domestic markets failed. Treasury, perhaps understandably, resisted special treatment for any individual sector but in the end the arguments and the evidence presented by the fishing industry won through.

The financial support scheme was not without its constraints and limitations but was widely welcomed as an important lifeline for many. Although support schemes had previously been announced by the devolved administrations, it is not obvious that a scheme for the English fleet would have been forthcoming without a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

Shellfish

Discussions within a meeting of the NFFO’s Executive Committee provided the germ of an idea that eventually launched a new national initiative to give the economically important crab and lobster sector a voice at least as strong as that as the whitefish and pelagic sectors. Using the model established by the scallop industry working group, the Shellfish Industry Advisory Group has been established and is already gaining traction as one of the first parts of the industry to begin work on the development of its own tailored management plan based on of co-management through which fishers, fisheries managers and fisheries scientists work together towards common objectives.

Future of Inshore Fisheries

Another NFFO inspired initiative, the Future of Inshore Fisheries Conference, brought together fishers, mangers and scientists in October 2019, in a ground-breaking attempt to break out of a cycle of failure, unintended consequences of past policies and to chart a new course. The Conference was judged a major success, putting to bed some a range of myths surrounding the inshore sector and generating many fresh ideas and an enthusiasm for exploring the possibilities of co-management. Taking some of these ideas forward have been hampered by the pandemic but a steering group has been formed to ensure that the momentum will be maintained. The Federation will continue to put its shoulder to the wheel to ensure that this important initiative delivers.

Fleet Diversity

One of the more asinine strands of comment on the fishing industry in recent years has sought to create an artificial divide between large and small fishing vessels and operations. The Federation has consistently made the case that one of the central planks of sustainable fishing is a diverse fleet, targeting a wide range of species with different gears and operations. We need small-scale, medium-scale, and large-scale vessels in our fleets. We need the offshore and the inshore. There is nothing inherently sustainable of unsustainable about both large and small vessels. It all depends on how they are fishing and their impact on target and non-target species. Many small-scale vessels can be rightly labelled as operating in low-impact fisheries. Likewise, large vessels, with a very low carbon footprint per tonne of fish landed are amongst the most environmentally friendly forms of food production on earth.

In many places there is an interdependence between vessels of different sizes: port infrastructures are maintained by the throughput provided by larger vessels which can fish most of the year, whilst smaller vessels landing can benefit from access to both niche and mainstream markets.

Safety, Crew Welfare and Training

Nothing is more important than bring our vessels and crews back to port safely after a trip. For this reason, the Federation has a dedicated safety and training officer who works within the context of the UK Fishing Industry Safety Group to build a strong safety culture within our industry. Building on the sterling work of his predecessor, our current Safety officer is currently deeply involved in the implementation of ILO 188, which amounts to the most radical transformation of the rules governing fishing vessel safety and crew welfare for a generation.

Cod Recovery

Ecosystem changes are underway and have dramatically affected the distribution of cod, which in UK waters are at the southernmost extent of their species. Scientists tell us that cod populations are moving north at around 12km per year. This observation coincides with fishers’ experience in the Channel, Celtic Sea and Southern North Sea. How fisheries management should adapt and respond to these changes is one of the central challenges facing both the fishing industry and fisheries administrators today. The difficulties of selecting out a large-bodied fish like cod, in a mixed fishery, the reliance to date on short term reactive measures rather than a coherent rebuilding plan, the shortcomings of the EU landing obligation and jurisdictional changes associated with the UK’s departure from the EU, all make this currently a highly complex policy area but one which cannot be ignored. The industry has shown itself willing to engage with scientists and administrators to develop an approach which avoids the pitfalls and deals with the biological and economic realities, and it is that engagement that will ultimately deliver a path forward.

Marine Plastics

Barely a week goes by without a member of the public enquiring what the fishing industry is doing to reduce plastic in the marine environment. Marine litter therefore represents a practical and reputational risk to the fishing industry that we cannot ignore.

The NFFO website spells out the many initiatives under way, including the well-established Fishing for Litter Campaign.

Fishmongers Company Support

The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers is an ancient London livery company, which has taken the decision to use its resources to support the UK fishing industry achieve its full potential as the UK leaves the EU. Generous financial support from the Company has supported a series of parliamentary events, media briefings and conferences focused on getting the best deal and implementing best practice in the post-CFP world.

I would like to express my personal gratitude to the Company and hope that the productive relationships now established will continue long into the future.

Unwanted Catch

The Federation played its part in puncturing the pretensions, mistruths and distortions of Hugh’s Fish Fight but not before the campaign had led to the deeply flawed and unworkable EU landing obligation. The intervening years have seen an endless struggle to make the requirement to land all quota species fit with the realities of managing mixed fisheries, within a system of TACs and quotas and quota shares based on Relative Stability. Discards in some of our main fisheries had been reduced by up to 90% before Hugh’s Fishfight belatedly appeared on the scene.

Nevertheless, there is across the industry, a wide recognition that reducing unwanted catch is a priority for both economic and reputational reasons.

Developing a workable version of the landing obligation, tailored to conditions in UK fisheries is therefore likely to be one of the fishing industry’s priorities in using the powers enshrined in the Fisheries Bill to amend retained EU fisheries legislation.

Marine Protected Areas

After working for several years on a methodical, evidenced-based, approach to managing fishing activity in marine protected areas, the Federation was blind-sided by the establishment of an “independent’ panel, chaired by former fisheries minister Richard Benyon. The panel’s task was to pave the way for Highly Protected Marine Areas, an idea which had previously been rejected. The NFFO was not invited onto the panel which was heavily weighted towards the environmental lobby. The lack of clarity about what HPMAs were supposed to achieve and the lack of fit with everything else that was going on within Defra (reform of inshore fisheries management and co-management in particular) suggested that this initiative was helicoptered in after lobbying in high places. The issue of fishers displaced from their fishing grounds and livelihoods was treated dismissively in the report.

The NFFO recognises that vulnerable habitats and species require protection which we have put so much effort into working with government and scientists in developing a methodology that identifies the fishing gears incompatible with sensitive habitats, and mitigation measures so that fishing compatible with conservation objectives could continue.

A battle therefore looms. At stake is whether the Government is truly committed to co-management or, when it suits will revert to the failed command and control approach usually associated with the CFP.

NFFO Services Limited

The hard work of our services division, NFFO Services Limited, continues to play an absolutely central role in managing the co-existence of fishing and other marine users, as well as generating income which supports the Federation’s activities.

Salmon

After an unequal struggle with the powerful angling lobby over forty years, the North East drift net fishery was finally closed. Tribute for this monumental feat (the Scottish drift net fishery was reserved for anglers in the 1960s) must go to the heroic work of the NFFO Salmon Committee and in particular, its chairman Derek Heselton. The Committee’s work continues on the compensation front and to maintain the commercial net fisheries for seatrout.

Bass

A run of low recruitment year classes and over-exploitation led the seabass stocks to dip a few years ago. Remedial measures, including the closure of the two directed fisheries from 2015 onwards, dramatically reduced fishing pressure and the stock biomass is showing good signs of recovery. Bass is also caught in a range of gears as an unavoidable bycatch and restrictive bycatch limits have generated a significant increase in regulatory discards as a result. Bass is not a TAC stock but is a shared stock, suggesting that bilateral negotiations between the UK and the EU will be required to maintain momentum the rebuilding of the stock, whilst minimising the level of discard that are a by-product of the current approach.

Advisory Councils

One aspect of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and therefore the CFP, will be that the Federation will refocus its efforts and energies on international fisheries agreements and domestic fisheries policy, rather than the EU’s policy formulation and decision-making institutions.

From their establishment in 2004/5 the NFFO put a great deal of effort into the EU regional advisory councils, as one of the only means available at the time that fisheries stakeholders could shape fisheries policy. The Federation was centrally involved in the establishment of the North Sea and Western Waters RACs and were involved in the Long Distance RAC and the Pelagic RAC from the outset. In some respects, the RACs (later to become ACs) were an expression of the decentralisation of the CFP which the NFFO had campaigned for as a bulwark against the inherent over-centralisation of the CFP. NFFO members and officers held several key positions in the ACs, including chairs of key committees. The Federation will end its membership of all the advisory councils at the end of the transition period. In any event, in recent years, the Commission has failed to distinguish between fisheries stakeholders and groups who merely hold opinions about how fisheries should be managed, leading in turn to a downward spiral of compromised advice, and a loss of respect and influence. The Commission continues to pay lip service to the ACs, but they are no longer seen as a central reforming feature of the CFP.

Conclusion

The Chairman’s report can only hope to skim the surface of the Federation’s activity on behalf of its members. I could mention the NFFO Training Trust and dozens of other areas in which the Federation is active. I would however like to draw attention and offer my thanks to the many members – of our Executive and regional committees and on the boards of our member POs, who give up their time and energy to work within the Federation for the common good. Without these individuals, unpaid but committed, there would be no Federation, or it would be only a shadow of the vigorous, influential, body that we see working for all of us today.