Both sides of the Christmas break have seen intense activity at Westminster as the Fisheries…
An NFFO team has arrived in Brussels for the Fisheries Council on 14th /15th December, where next year's quotas will be decided.
A meeting was held on Wednesday last week, with Fisheries Minister George Eustice, to discuss the UK’s priorities for this year’s Council. This follows more detailed discussions with senior officials and scientists earlier in the autumn. Setting quota levels is now a prolonged process, one way or another, especially when the ongoing discussions with scientists about assessment models and data that take place throughout the year are taken into account.
The Council is always important, however, because in the final analysis it determines the total allowable catches for the following year. This Council is especially significant because it will set uplifted quotas for those demersal stocks which come under the landings obligation in 2016. The Commission’s moratorium for bass is also on the agenda, as will be the continuation of the effort freeze that has held cuts in days-at-sea at bay in recent years, whilst the legal debacle of the EU Cod Plan is sorted out. So, over the next few days important decisions will be made.
It appears that the self-inflicted crisis, when it appeared that the European Parliament was going to delay the North Sea discard plan (and the important phasing and exemptions it contains) has gone away – but only after the Parliament found its reverse gear. Uplifts are based on ICES discard estimates, less de minimis exemptions, and less allowance for those parts of the fleet which will continued to be allowed to discard. Whilst some discard estimates are expected to be quite accurate, others are likely to be well out, especially in North Western waters, and the NFFO has warned that it will be important for the Council to prepare to adjust TAC levels mid-year if necessary if landings are found to be drastically out of alignment with the TAC. We have also worked very hard to ensure that the new regime is phased, rather than beginning with the chaos of a Big Bang.
The Federation couldn't make its views on bass more plain. It would be folly to agree to the Commission’s proposal for a moratorium, which repeats the behavioural pattern of so many CFP failures over the years. A measured, proportionate, and well thought-through approach will always outperform spectacular but poorly thought through gesture politics.
Quotas for 2016
In general, biomass and fishing mortality trends continue to move in the right direction.
Measured by tonnage, around 80% of our fisheries are at or around maximum sustainable yield. Despite this steady progress towards high yield fisheries, a significant number of proposed quota reductions this year reflect the arbitrary, although legally binding, MSY timelines enshrined in the CFP. For us, it is much more important to move steadily and incrementally in the right direction than to meet these artificial lines in the sand. We have previously explained that ministers have a specific management responsibility to build on the single stock scientific advice and should not be afraid to take into account mixed fishery issues, the implication for discard rates, and socio-economic questions when arriving at TAC decisions.
No one, these days, is very keen to defend the discredited EU Cod Plan and the automatic reductions in days at sea and TAC that it implies. Even the Commission and Parliament who objected to the legal base that the Council used to institute an effort freeze, didn't question the substance of what the Council was doing. In the event, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Council didn't have the legal jurisdiction to act in this way but crucially, has given 12 months to put things right. This means that it should be possible to continue with the effort freeze next year and in the meantime work on a replacement in the form of regional mixed fishery plans for the demersal fisheries.
It seems strange that the Commission has blocked the Fully Documented Fishery for North Sea cod by refusing a request by the UK and Denmark to include it in the EU/ Norway negotiations. The FDF scheme has been spectacularly successful in reducing discards and Norway had signalled that it would look favourably on a request for additional cod quota.
We have asked the UK to raise the issue at Council, as none of the member states who have opposed the scheme have a significant involvement in the fishery concerned. The FDF scheme has also been an important way in which the English fleet has “bought back” effort and so it has implications in that direction too if it is not going ahead in 2016.
It has always been a bit of a fiction that the Cod Plan predetermined the TACs for the North Sea. The Council may have to ratify the decisions but the reality is that for North Sea cod and the other joint stocks, the quotas are set by international agreement, in the context of the annual reciprocal fisheries agreement with Norway. This year’s negotiations on the whole went quite smoothly and were completed on 4th December. Most joint-stock quotas have seen modest increase, or rollover, for 2016 and Norway has been quite understanding about quota uplifts associated with the landings obligation, although it remains perplexed why the EU has made its discard ban so complex.
There is always a challenge in finding the quota currency to set the agreement at the highest level of reciprocity and not for the first time, a two phase process is allowed for so that additional transfers can be made in the New Year.
The diversity of our fisheries is reflected in the composition of our NFFO team here this week Brussels. Fishermen and their representatives from Cornwall to Northumbria and Northern Ireland to Sussex are with us; and from under-10 meter to the large distant water and pelagic fleets - all have a voice. All of them have their lines of communication to those back home who are naturally very keen to learn of the outcomes of these talks. In the final analysis, it is important to remember amidst the politics, quota figures and late-night negotiations, it is people's livelihoods that are at stake here.