This was a different kind of December Council in a number of important ways. Many delegations…
December Council Outcomes
In addition to arguing for TAC and quota levels consistent with the viability of the fleets, a strong NFFO team went to the December Council negotiations this year with a number of key objectives. These included urging Ministers to:
- Resist the Commission’s proposals to extend effort control to the Celtic Sea
- Oppose the Commission’s proposal to apply functional units (sub-area) TACs to the nephrops fisheries in Area VII
- Secure a review of the failed Irish Sea Cod Recovery Plan
- Reject TACs levels that imply a substantial increase in discards
- Limit the impact of effort reductions
All of these objectives have one thing in common. They resist the application of an inflexible, top-down, broad-brush policy, that the Commission itself recognises is an outdated and failed approach to fisheries management and intends to reform.
The Commission’s ambition to apply some form of effort regime to the fisheries in the Celtic Sea goes back some time. The NFFO successfully lobbied for the Celtic Sea to be excluded from the EU cod management plan in November 2008, and every year since. However a modified Commission plan focused on the Bristol Channel (Area VIIfg) was included in the Commission’s proposals for next year and the UK, Ireland and France again had to spell out why the proposal was not justified, and in any event, why it would be an inappropriate and blunt instrument to use in these ultra-mixed fisheries. This part of the proposal was withdrawn at a relatively early stage of the negotiations, signalling that the Commission realised that there was no prospect of it being adopted because of the strong opposition of ministers.
Functional Unit TACs
It makes a great deal of sense to manage nephrops fisheries on the basis of the (sometimes varying) condition of local stocks. It was the translation of this scientific advice into Functional Unit TACs, in the Commission’s Proposal that, if accepted, would have created a bureaucratic nightmare of mini-quotas in Area VII. Again, successful lobbying and the support of UK ministers blocked this wrong turning.
Review of the Cod Management Plan
Nowhere is the stark failure of the EU cod recovery plan and the subsequent cod management plan more evident than in the Irish Sea – unless it is on the West of Scotland, or in the North Sea, where the rebuilding the cod stock will be impeded by 39,000 tonnes of discards, a by-product of the low TACs set and the rigidity of the management regime. It has been apparent for some time now that simply appending the Irish Sea onto the coat-tails of the measures adopted for the much larger North Sea is not a viable way to rebuild the cod stocks.
For this reason the NFFO called for and now welcomes, the Council Declaration requiring a review of the cod management plan in its entirety. The focus will now turn to the scope and quality of the review.
RACs and Responsibility
In all of these issues (Celtic Sea cod, functional unit management in the Nephrops fisheries and the review of the cod management plan) it is clear that the regional advisory councils in North West waters and in the North Sea will carry a heavy responsibility to produce evidence-based, influential, stakeholder advice. Work has already begun in the NWWRAC on a long term management plan for the demersal fisheries in the Celtic Sea and early in the New Year decisions will be made on how to handle functional units as part of a long term management plan for nephrops. Work will also begin on the cod review. The evident failure of over-centralised command and control policies means that it is inevitable that RACs will have to shoulder new responsibilities.
Discards and Disaster
As far as reducing discards is concerned, in many regards, the decisions made at this December Council are a disaster. A limited amount of extra cod quota will be made available to motivate the Catch Quota project, and the new approach on North Sea whiting will reduce discarding somewhat. But on the whole, the Commission has given priority to a dash for MSY (a concept which many fisheries scientists regard as unattainable for all stocks simultaneously and inappropriate for mixed fisheries). The EU’s commitment to achieving maximum sustainable yield by 2015 – without in tandem building, practical and customised discard reduction programmes - will inevitably result in a steep increase in discards in 2011. At present there is a huge gulf between the Commission’s words and its actions on discards.Channel Fisheries: 11th Hour Reprieve
It is now apparent that the Channel fisheries have escaped the brunt of the proposed TAC and effort restrictions, largely as a result of robust arguments put forward by the UK. The split of the eastern from the western Channel plaice TAC would, at a stroke, have created an inbuilt and very significant discard problem, as UK beam trawlers targeting sole would have misaligned allocations and from 1st January would have been obliged to dump large quantities of mature, valuable, plaice. A combined French/ UK opposition obliged the Commission to drop the proposal at the 11th hour.
Likewise a cut of 15% in the effort limits applied to the Western Channel sole fishery was successfully blocked by highlighting an alternative reading of the, admittedly poorly drafted, Western Channel Sole management plan.
Fishing Effort and Long Term Management Plans
The cumulative restrictions on fishing effort (days-at-sea limits) have reached the stage that they represent a real and huge difficulty for the operation of commercial fishing vessels in the cod recovery zone. The paradox is that this crippling, yet ineffectual, measure was hardly discussed at the Council because the limits are prescribed in the 3 year cod management plan; also the Commissioner pre-empted any discussion by indicating that dilution or diversion from long term management plans was one of the Commission’s “red lines”. Thus, the North Sea will be subject to a 15.4% reduction in effort for 2011 and the Irish Sea and West of Scotland will face a painful 25% reduction. For the North Sea, for those vessels willing and able to participate in the Catch Quota project with fully documented fisheries, some degree of exemption from the effort regime will be possible. The priority for the Cod Review must be to challenge this commercially crippling instrument that increases operating costs without making any demonstrable contribution to cod conservation.
Long term management plans are in their infancy in EU fisheries and so far tend to be a fairly crude set of harvest control rules. Whilst clearly plans have to be set and followed, there is also a need for some flexibility to fine tune arrangements within certain pre-agreed bounds. This year LTMPs have caused problems in the North Sea herring, cod, saithe and the Western Channel sole fisheries. It is important that over the coming 12 months we begin to move more sophisticated approach which provides flexibility within reasonable parameters without threatening the achievement of objectives.
TACs and Quotas
The Commissioner’s somewhat belligerent tactics and purist posturing appear to have backfired to a significant degree. If the Commission’s strategy was to sideline stakeholders’ views, ignore the usual consultative arrangements and bounce the member states into brutal reductions of TACs and effort, it would appear to have failed. As the Commission’s tactics became clearer, ministers rallied to defend their fishing opportunities, not least because of the socio-economic fall out that would have resulted. Whether this was a deliberate strategy or the result of inexperience at the top is hard to say. With the exception of the cod TACs and effort, the December Council saw the Commission retreat from their proposals across a wide front, as member states vigorously deployed science and evidence-based arguments for a more moderated approach. In a number of quotas where the status of the stocks are uncertain, 15% reductions have been moderated to a more or less notional 2% reduction. The UK team seem have delivered solid results within this context. It is important to put things in context however. The whole December process is flawed and will continue to put ministers in the position of repeatedly having to defend their fishing industries from the consequence of blunt top-down management. It has to be hoped that TACs set within a regional management approach would result in a less conflictual, fraught and irrational system for setting TACs. The Commission’s CFP reform proposals, expected in the summer of 2011 will be critical in seeing movement in this direction.
The NFFO Team
The NFFO team in Brussels this year was Davey Hill, Arnold Locker, Nigel Atkins, John Cassidy, Denis Clark, Alan McCulla, Paul Trebilcock and Barrie Deas.