This was a different kind of December Council in a number of important ways. Many delegations…
The political decision by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament to place an obligation to land on all quota species carries many implications, some potentially good, some potentially harmful.
The only thing clear about the discard ban at present is the lack of clarity which surrounds what it will actually mean for individual fishing vessels. However, though the first wave of landing obligations will apply (to pelagic vessels) in January 2015, this lack of clarity is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the detailed decisions of how the ban on discards will be applied in practice remain to be decided at member state level, at regional seas level and at individual fishing vessel level. This is a big improvement from all of the detail being decided in Brussels. There is substantial scope for flexibility, if it is used properly, to ensure that, whilst the political objectives of the discard ban are met, fishing fleets are not bankrupted in the process.
It is vitally important that we get this process right. Everything is to play for.
The first meeting between Defra officials and the NFFO to discuss the implementation of the landings obligation, took place recently in London and it focused on the pathway that will lead, in due course, to the implementing decisions as the discard ban is progressively applied between 2015 and 2019. The start date for the main whitefish stocks is 1st January 2016.
The key to the landings obligation will be a requirement to land all catches of quota species, which will count against quota.
The most immediate issue for vessels will be how to ensure that only catch with value is landed, so as not to waste quota. This is likely to set in train an unprecedented search for selectivity, whether through gear adaptations, or decisions on when and where to fish. In some fisheries significant improvement in selectivity are difficult, if not impossible to achieve. In these other flexibilities/exemptions (discussed below) will be available.
In order to arrive at the implementation dates with a set of arrangements that deliver the landings obligation in an acceptable way, Defra envisages that five workstreams will be set up.
- Quotas and Quota Management.
This will cover:
- TAC uplift to cover discards
- Recording all catch
- Up to 9% of by-catch species can be counted against the principal target species to prevent choke species
- De minimis: 5% of total annual catch of total catch (at vessel level) may still be discarded where selectivity is not an available solution or where the costs are disproportionately high
This will address the question how the landing obligation will be enforced. The options include:
- CCTV cameras may be appropriate in some fisheries
- Reference fleets where observers or cameras are in place aboard a small percentage of the fleet. Catch compositions of the whole fleet are cross checked against these reference vessels
The new regulation places heavy new burdens on science to provide:
- Discard data to justify the level on TAC uplift in specific fisheries
- The definition of high survival rate to be used to provide exemptions in some fisheries (plaice and nephrops fisheries are obvious examples)
- Data to justify or deny an exemption on the grounds of high survival
- Data to justify use of the de minimis exemption in cases where improvements in selectivity are difficult or where the costs are disproportionately high
There will be a need for a range of fisheries/science partnerships to provide discard data. A new funding programme named Assist, with a budget of £300,000 pa over 5 years is envisaged.
The ultimate aim is that member states’discards policy will be incorporated into comprehensive fisheries level Multi-Annual Management Plans. These will in future be the main vehicle for fisheries management, fixing rules for setting TACs etc. Few people believe that these will be developed in the mixed demersal fisheries for some time, although much work is going on to clarify how mixed-fishery and multi-species advice and management could work. In the meantime, it will be expected that member states will cooperate at a regional seas level (e.g. North Sea, Celtic Sea, Irish Sea) to agree a common approach to discards, in the form of a discard plan for each fishery. Agreement on discard rates, the criteria to be used for high survival exemptions etc will be incorporated into these discard plans. The backstop, if member states fail to develop their own discard plan, is that the Commission has the power to step in to impose their own discard plan. This provides a considerable motivation for member states to get to work.
As suggested above, the discard ban will create a powerful incentive to vessels to minimise unwanted catch, in order to save quota for species/sizes with most value. Over and above this, the Commission is planning a major revision of its Technical Conservation Regulation (EC 850/98). Parts of this Regulation are expected to go very soon in the first sweep of EU rules which generate discards. (including catch composition rules and by-catch rules).
A big outstanding question relates to the extent which the new technical rules will only provide a broad framework for member states, working with the RACs to define appropriate regional rules; or whether the Commission (and European Parliament and Council of Ministers) can resist the urge to micro-manage from the centre.
The landings obligation/discard ban will not take place in a policy vacuum. The provisions within the CFP reform legislation for regionalisation may not be as far reaching and explicit as some hoped for but they do hold potential for some very far reaching change in the way policy is formed in the future. Discard policy is likely to be amongst the first issues to be dealt with through the cooperation of relevant member states at regional seas level. Discard plans and high survival criteria are obvious candidates for the new approach. The regional advisory councils are expected to play a leading role under this new arrangement.
The landings obligation is likely to be one of the biggest changes to the management of our fisheries in a generation. We face a difficult transitional period. On a positive view, if handled well, there is scope for the industry to emerge in a stronger position, with higher TACs to cover discards, the removal of some obvious rigidities in the current rules and flexibility to deal with difficult cases.
The $64K question is whether the transition will be handled in an intelligent and pragmatic way, or whether the top-down way of doing things will resurface in a new guise.