December Council Outcomes

21st December 2015 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy, TACs and Quotas

The Council of European fisheries ministers which decided the quota levels for 2016 was held in Brussels on 14th and 15th December, concluding in the early hours of 16th December. A strong NFFO team was present throughout the Council process.

December Council Outcomes

Warning: the figures and points made in this article should be regarded as provisional as we do not yet have clarity on all of the details agreed at the December Council. A definitive list of TACs and quotas for next year will be circulated as soon as the figures we have can be confirmed

Although the Council remains a pivotal point in the fisheries calendar, in truth it is now simply the culminating point for a great deal of work throughout the whole year. Working with fisheries scientists on individual stock assessments and administrators on appropriate management measures, and preparing advice within the advisory councils, takes up a lot of our time these days.

Quota Uplifts

This Council was notable for including quota uplift for those stocks/fisheries that will be included in the landings obligation in 2016. Although the methodology used is reasonable coherent, there remains a great deal of uncertainty over the discard estimates that have been used. Some will be fairly accurate but others are based on little more than educated guesswork. The NFFO has warned that in order to avoid chokes in mixed fisheries, it may become necessary to agree mid-year top-ups if the amount of fish landed to meet the landings obligation exceeds expectations.

Bass: Inshore Trawlers hung out to dry?

Even days after the conclusion of the Fish Council in Brussels in the early hours of Wednesday morning, confusion still reigns on what was actually agreed on bass.

In the ministerial debrief at 2am, industry representatives were told that the closure of the bass period in the first 6 months of 2016 would contain exemptions for hook and line and gill net fisheries but that other gears, including inshore trawlers would be limited to a 1% bycatch limit.

The minister was told by the NFFO in no uncertain terms that this would create a significant level of regulatory discards where none had previously existed. Inshore trawlers would have to throw away bass that they catch - or keep on board unwanted bulk catch just to ensure their catch composition is within the permitted limit. This would do nothing to reduce fishing mortality on bass but would hurt the inshore trawling fleet by depriving it of a small but valuable component in their weekly catch.

As written text on what was agreed at the Council is emerging, it appears that in the second half of the year trawlers will be subject to a 1 tonne catch limit (com­pared to the 1.3 tonne limit for hook and line and gill nets). No mention of this had been made previously.

This episode shines a spotlight on a number of issues:

  • The design and agreement of complex conservation measures that have pro­found implications for fish and fisher­men by the December Council, when a multitude of other issues are being agreed, is a less than optimum approach to fisheries policy, as we have said many times before.
  • The rhetoric used about small-scale low impact fisheries is divisive and may have left the inshore trawler fleet hung out to dry (when we eventually learn what was agreed and what applies to who and when)
  • The other loser is bass: cosmetic measures driven by gesture politics has displaced real conservation in this complex arena. The Council with its competing priorities and closed doors is the worst place to agree such measures.
  • Communication will be at the heart of a solution for bass. Dialogue between sci­entists, fisheries stakeholders and fisher­ies administrators is required to design effective solutions. Communication was sadly lacking during the Council to the extent that it is far from clear what was agreed Ahead of the Council, the Fed­eration warned about bass conservation being driven by other people’s agendas and gesture politics and it brings no pleasure to confirm that we were right and that the Council in this regard lived down to our expectations.

When we have the definitive text on what was agreed on bass we will be able to assess its impact and develop our response.
Understanding? Are they in fear of vil­ification by the media, always keen to sensationalise and accuse? Is it because their time horizons are so short?

All of these explanations are in the mix but it is not good enough.

Until the fundamental lessons are taken on board, we in the industry will have to deal with the aftermath of intemperate and fundamentally stupid decisions. By the time the evaluations tell the same sad old story of failure, the commission­ers, ministers and officials who sign up to these measures will have left the stage, no doubt feeling that they have done their duty by creating another piece of legis­lation. The reality is that they will have failed us again, and it will be fishermen who pick up the pieces.

It’s not as though we don’t know how success works. Get the right people in the room: fisheries scientists, fisheries administrators and fisheries stakehold­ers. Identify the basic problems, fleet by fleet, region by region; design and agree appropriate responses. Implement those measures carefully, incrementally, and in continuous dialogue. It’s not spectacular. It’s not flamboyant. But time after time it’s the model that delivers when drastic measures merely shift the problem.

It is only to be hoped that at this late stage, as the December Council rapidly approaches that a flicker of recall will remind the Commission and the Council of Ministers what has worked in the past and what has failed.

Bass Blind Alley

It was to be expected, we suppose, that the Commission would stick with its flawed proposal for a moratorium on seabass. This kind of politically driven reactive measure falls into familiar territo­ry when: “we must be seen to be doing something” takes prece­dence over “what would actually make a difference.”

What this appears to mean is that anglers will be able to contin­ue to fish for bass on a catch and release basis throughout the closed period, and rod and line and netters will be constrained to a 1.3 tonne monthly limit, although more clarity is required on how netters will be defined. However trawlers, for which bass is pri­marily a bycatch species, will now be obliged to discard catches of bass for the first six months of 2016, where these are over 1% of their total catch on board. This is highly divisive and, at a stroke, the Commission has created a discard problem where none previously existed; fishing mortality will be unaffected, as bass caught on trawlers will now be discarded dead instead of being landed. This is not intelligent fisheries management.

The Measures

  1. There will be a six-month closure of commercial bass fisheries (January to June), with partial exemptions for low impact, inshore fisheries.
  2. Recreational anglers will continue to be able to target the fish in the first six months of the year on the basis of catch and release, with a one fish bag limit for the second 6 months.
  3. Small-scale liners and netters will have a 1.3 tonne monthly catch limit, with a 2 month closed season during February and March
  4. Outside the closure, other operations will be allowed a monthly catch limit of 1 tonne.
  5. There was the 1% bycatch provision for the demersal métiers (contained in the original proposal) that still stands.

North Sea

Ned Clark – Chairman, NFFO North East Committee

The TACs for the main North Sea stocks are agreed within the context of the annual EU/ Norway reciprocal agreement which were concluded in Bergen on 13th De­cember. The Council of Ministers, gener­ally just rubber-stamps the TACs agreed with Norway. On the whole these reflect the generally improving biomasses, in the North Sea or were fixed at the status quo. Nephrops, however, lies outside the agreement with Norway and ICES scien­tists have for a number of years pointed to the different conservation status of dif­ferent sub-stocks or functional units of ne­phrops. We have argued strongly against functional unit TACs which would be a nightmare to manage and the poor outlook for the Farne Deeps functional unit made it likely that additional restrictive measures would be on the table this December. In the event, the Council swerved away from an “of which” quota which would have constrained catches in the Farne Deeps more than elsewhere in the North Sea and instead endorsed the UK’s proposal for an approach based on technical measures. The detail of these are still being worked on with overall aim of bringing the Farne Deeps nephrop stock back in line with the rest of the North Sea. The Federation also successfully made the case for the EU to approach Norway to run the Fully Doc­umented Fishery scheme for North Sea Cod in 2016, given that cod will not come under the landings obligation in that year and the Norwegians have already sig­nalled their agreement if asked.


The European Court judgement in the dispute over jurisdiction between the Par­liament and the Council on the EU Cod Plan, allowed the effort freeze applied by the Council over the last two years, to con­tinue in 2016. This adjustment will provide an important breathing space to hopefully agree mixed fishery plan that will super­sede the now discredited Cod Manage­ment Plan.

TAC Tension

Perhaps the best way of understanding the outcome of the December Council is as a tension between two opposing forces. On the one hand, the generally and steadily improv­ing stocks situ­ation as reflected in the ICES advice. On the other the artificial, arbitrary but legally binding requirement to set TACs to achieve maximum sustainable yield by 2015 if pos­sible, and in any be event by 2020. For TACs this has meant cuts or increases reduced from what they would otherwise have been. Our view is that it is important to maintain steady progress towards high yield fisheries but that artificial and arbi­trary timetables are not necessarily helpful and in some cases a downright obstacle to intelligent fisheries management. In the event, the Commission pressed hard for TACs to be set to the MSY timetable and ministers had to argued for mixed fishery, discard and socio-economic concerns to be taken into account. The outcomes are an uneasy balance.

South East

Tony Delahunty – Chairman of the NFFO and NFFO South East Committee

"Clearly the outcome on bass was disap­pointing and although not all the details are yet clear, it will certainly have a serious impact on many fishermen in the South East. Taking a wider view, however the Council results contain some important positives. Although the cut in Eastern Channel sole will be painful, by adopt­ing the advice of the North West Adviso­ry Council, a much bigger reduction was avoided and we should get to MSY within the timetable without any further reduc­tions over the next few years.

The 100% increase in the Channel plaice quota is a welcome reflection of the posi­tive stock trends.

Many stocks in our region are categorised as data poor. In recent years, this has meant the Commission has proposed 20% cuts, irrespective of whether the trends for that stock is up, down, or status quo. It has been left to the member states to claw back some semblance of common sense during the Council. We need a more coherent way to deal with data poor stocks and the NFFO has been engaged with DEFRA and ICES through­out the year to secure this. Similarly, we are moving, painfully slowly, to a more sensible way of managing the skates and rays group of species. We are hopeful of mid-year increases when new science becomes available and moving towards an approach which separates out vulner­able species and allows proper harvesting of the main commercial species.

A further 10% increase in the TAC for Eastern Channel cod (linked to the North Sea) is welcome but of course, is insuf­ficient on its own to solve the problem of regulatory discards. Similarly, the 10%in­crease in undulate ray is a move in the right direction. Two years ago we were being forced to discard them all. Likewise, the 10% increase on skates and rays is helpful although, of course, there is still a way to go. ”

The View from Cornwall

Paul Trebilcock, NFFO President and Chief Executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation

"Given the ultra-mixed fisheries in the South West, the outcome of the December Council was always going to be judged as an overall package. From that point of view the deal agreed in the early hours of 16 December will not by regarded by all fisher­men in Cornwall as a roaring success.”

  • The measures agreed for bass will do nothing to reduce fishing mortality but will create a discard issue where none currently exists
  • Fishermen will face further reductions in their Haddock (13%) and Cod (10%) quotas, driven mainly by an artificial timetable to reach MSY.
  • Spurdog: despite working with CEFAS and Defra on developing a practical and workable solution, fishermen will contin­ue to face the frustration of discarding huge amounts of dead spurdog until at least March.


On a more positive note, many of the im­portant SW stocks share the generally improving stock health being experienced right across the North East Atlantic, and along with some data limited assessments this is reflected in some important TAC in­creases or status quo positions:

  • Hake (9.5%)
  • Monk (Rollover)
  • Megrim (5%)
  • Plaice VII d,e (100%)
  • Sole VIIe (15%) in channel
  • Pollack (Rollover)
  • Rays (Rollover)

Once again, the CFPO/NFFO made plain from the outset that in the ports, the outcome of the Council could only be judged as a package. And from that per­spective whilst we are relieved in some parts there are also some important dis­appointments. The UK Min­ister, George Eustice, and his team were fully briefed before the negotiations began and were made acutely aware of our priorities and the consequences of politically cos­metic outcomes. The CFPO also provid­ed a detailed briefing note to MPs ahead of the annual fisheries debate in Parlia­ment. At the pre-council briefing between the NFFO and the UK minister, George Eustice and his team were keen to under­line the scale of the challenges they faced ahead of and throughout the negotiations.

The CFPO has already begun talks with MMO and other member states to secure additional quota through international and domestic swaps and transfers in an effort to maximise fishing opportunities.”

Irish Sea

Alan McCulla OBE – NFFO Executive Committee

Speaking from Brussels at the end of the EU’s December Fisheries Council, where decisions were made on fishing opportu­nities in 2016, Alan McCulla OBE, Chief Executive of ‘Sea-Source’, said,

“We came to Brussels with two main priori­ties. These were to overturn the proposed reductions of 18% on the Irish Sea prawn quota and the 59% cut that had been tabled for Irish Sea haddock. Using pos­itive scientific advice the Ministerial team, which includes Michelle O’Neill MLA and her officials from DARD worked with in­dustry not just to overturn these proposals, but to deliver a 8% increase in the prawn quota and a 40% increase in the haddock quota. Compared to what had been pro­posed by the European Commission this was a dramatic and justified turn around. It is also important because both species will be subject to a discard ban from 1 January 2016. Furthermore, these deci­sions will help sustain and hopefully create additional jobs in Northern Ireland’s fishing industry.

There were also positive outcomes on other stocks that are important to County Down’s fishermen, including the hake quota that was increased by 20%. However, these successes were tempered by the continuing automatic reduction of 20% on catches of Irish Sea cod, which remains a massive frustration for our fish­ermen. The 6% reduction in the Irish Sea herring quota was a disappointment. The Irish Sea sole quota was slashed by 55%, but at the same time the meeting agreed there were significant issues with some of these scientific assessments that will have to be addressed urgently in 2016.

Local fishermen want to develop the kind of mixed fisheries that were once so suc­cessful in the Irish Sea and the decisions on prawns and haddock will allow us to take a step towards this ambition. A lot of work remains to be done to fix the scien­tific assessments with Irish Sea cod and sole, which are recognised to be out of touch with reality.

We acknowledge the efforts made here in Brussels this week by Michelle O’Neill MLA and her team. This is likely to be the Minister’s last December Fisheries Council and overall she can count this as a suc­cessful finale. The assistance provided by other Northern Ireland politicians especial­ly in lobbying the UK’s Fish­eries Minister George Eustice MP is also very much appreci­ated, as was ultimately Mr. Eustice’s support for Irish Sea issues.

Nevertheless, the European system that culminates in these decisions is quite ludi­crous. It remains the case that decisions about fisheries in the Irish Sea should be made at a regional level and not be sub­jected to the kind of hysteria the European Commission creates by their quota pro­posals.

This week has also seen the Commission finally agree to the UK’s operational plan for the delivery of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF). We look forward to working with DARD to ensure the financial help available through EMFF is put to good use for the benefit of our fishermen.”

NFFO Team in Brussels

The diversity of the NFFO’s membership and the range of fisheries prosecuted by our members was reflected in the team present for the talks in Brussels. North Sea, Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and Channel demersal interests were present, as were representatives of the under-10metre and, distant waters fleets and pelagic interests.

The team which travelled to Brussels was: Paul Trebilcock, Tony Delahunty, Ned Clark, Mathew Cox, Arnold Locker, Alan McCulla, Trevor Annett, Neil McKee, Jane Sandell and Barrie Deas

FULL REPORT Click here to read the full report on the meeting and an analysis by relevant NFFO team Members