December Council

20th December 2012 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

For those of us who have attended too many December Councils, the meeting of EU fisheries ministers who met between the 18th to 20th December this year felt different.

The outward signs were still there, including the all-night negotiations, hurried scrutiny of compromise texts, regular briefings from officials and ministers and media scrutiny. What was missing was the fraught, tense, atmosphere in which the wrong decision could cost livelihoods and businesses for thousands.

Nevertheless, the December Council did play an important corrective role in amending some of the Commission proposals in light of additional evidence from specific fisheries. The UK, with NFFO backing pressed the Commission hard on the stocks of most concern and the result is a mixed bag of good and bad and not so bad.

But the cliff-hanger tension of many previous December Councils was absent. This Council was not a turning-point but it may be an indicator that in future TAC decisions will be made in less of a pressure-cooker atmosphere.

Cod Plan

The decision, early on in the negotiations, to address the flaws in the EU Cod Plan removed the most contentious issue facing the Council. The decision to sidestep (for the time being) the inter-institutional turf-war between the Council and the Parliament, and move beyond pre-programmed quota and effort reductions, was a brave and intelligent decision. It allows us to address immediate issues facing the fleets and move towards the more effective Cod Plan envisaged by STECF.

Long Term Management Plans

An increasing number of stocks are now regulated through agreed and long-term management plans, which also removes the pressure on the year-end negotiations. So long as there is flexibility to address flaws in the plans as they arise, (and being human constructs, flaws always will arise) management plans offer a much better way of managing our fisheries.


Where the December failed to deliver fully rational decisions was in:

  • The Irish Sea where some kind of legal technicality seems to have prevented the Council from breaking away from the automatic 20% cut in the Irish Sea cod TAC. The UK has indicated that it will challenge this interpretation.
  • The Celtic Sea haddock fishery where a 55% reduction was ameliorated to 15% but in the context of a mixed fishery when associated TACs in the Celtic Sea are increasing this can only mean a victory for discards
  • Skate/spurdog/sharks where zero TACs or no landings apply. This is not a solution

EU Norway North Sea Joint Stocks

The Council decisions over the last few days should also free up the Commission’s negotiating mandate with Norway to agree a North Sea TAC at something less than a 20% reduction (and rationally a status quo rollover) when the talks resume in mid-January. In the meantime precautionary TACs at around 65% of 2012 TACs have been agreed to allow the fleets to fish from 1st January. We have no reason to believe that the final agreement will not follow the management plans and settle on 15% TAC increases for haddock, saithe, and plaice and an 11% increase for whiting.

Gear Selectivity: Celtic Sea and West of Scotland

An attempt to link quota decisions to additional selectivity measures was kept at bay after a considerable struggle.

Although it makes sense to make gear adjustments to reduce discards as far as possible when a large year-class of one species emerges, the mixed fishery context can make this a far from straight forward exercise. It is for this reason that we and the UK negotiating team, argued that the Council’s late night negotiations is exactly the wrong time and place to make detailed decisions on changes to gear selectivity. The Commission can only see the Council as opportunity to strong-arm member states into accepting new technical measures by linking it to quota levels. But the whole history of technical measures under the CFP has been a testimony to repeated failures of this type of hurried top-down approach. Scientists have observed that more has been achieved in this sphere in the last two years through industry collaboration and incentive structures, than in the previous twenty using the prescriptive legislation approach.

Data Limited Stocks

After the reaction to Commission’s proposed blanket 25% reduction for all data poor stocks in 2012, there has been an outbreak of common sense. Essentially, all listed data limited stocks will have their quotas fixed for 5 years at the 2013 level. A blanket 10% reduction was rejected in favour of a stock by stock approach for 2013: some TACs have been rolled over from the 2012 level; some have been subject to a 5% reduction. The stability that this approach will bring will be welcome and there is an escape clause if the science points to either a boom or bust situation arising in any individual data limited stock.