This was a different kind of December Council in a number of important ways. Many delegations…
Drift Net Blanket Ban: “Crazy, Misguided and Possibly Malicious”
Coalition of fishermen, scientists and conservationists preparing to resist Commission proposal
The main driver for the Commission's proposal for a blanket ban on drift-net fisheries appears to be the failure of Italy and perhaps other EU States in the Mediterranean, to enforce existing legislation prohibiting the use of drift nets for specific species like swordfish. Drift nets in some fisheries have high levels of bycatch of turtles, and cetaceans. Other drift net fisheries have insignificant levels of bycatch.
The blanket ban, proposed by the Commission, if adopted, would close all of the UK small scale drift-net fisheries for herring, mackerel, sole, bass, salmon, sardine and mullet, some of which are certificated by the Marine Stewardship Council. None of these fisheries has a significant unwanted bycatch problem.
This video (also below) provides an insight into one of these well-managed, small-scale, inshore fisheries.
An Alternative: Infraction Procedures
When the UK in the past has failed to implement EU legislation, the Commission has not been slow to instigate infraction procedures against the UK Government. We are at a loss therefore, to understand why the Commission is now reaching for additional legislation to address a specific problem in the Mediterranean, before it has exhausted the legal means available to it through infraction proceedings; especially when it is quite clear that this course will extinguish legitimate and sustainable small-scale fisheries in a number of member states. The maximum financial penalties are not minor – up to £256,000 per year for each area of non-compliance.
Addressing problems with enforcement of the existing legislation by prohibiting our relatively benign fisheries would be high-handed in the extreme. As there is no suggestion of a significant problem of incidental bycatch in our drift net fisheries, this legislation if pushed through co-decision could fairly be described as inappropriate, disproportionate, and in the final analysis, irrational. It is clearly easier for bureaucrats to reach for a pen to create new legislation than it is to ensure effective implementation of existing legislation. But that does not mean that the proposed ban is in any sense justifiable. It is certainly irresponsible.
We have written elsewhere why moving away from this kind of blanket, one-size-fits-all, approach was one of the main strands in the recent CFP reform, yet here we are again having to fight off exactly the kind of legislation that has in the past delivered little, caused massive collateral damage, created perverse incentives; and generally earned the Common Fisheries Policy an appalling reputation for being ineffectual.
FisheriesScientists express Alarm
We are not alone in expressing our anxiety about the Commission's bulldozer approach. One of the most highly regarded fisheries scientists in the world with long experience working with the FAO in Rome and credited with saving the great whales in the 1960s and 70s comments:
“I, too, was amazed and distressed to read notice of the completely mad EC proposal to ban all drift-nets. What in heaven's name is going on in Brussels?! Yes, there are some unintended catches just as with ALL fishing gears. The problem is to see how to avoid those as far as practicable; as with damage to the sea bed by trawls. But flat bans of broad types of widely used gears - that's crazy, misguided and possibly malicious.” Sidney Holt
Seasonality and Inshore Fishing
In its, characteristically superficial impact assessment, the Commission comments that drift nets are usually only used at certain parts of the year and that fishermen have the option of targeting other species or of using alternative gears.
In this Commission misunderstands that inshore small scale fishing, is generally about adapting to the seasons and targeting species that are available within the limited range of small vessels, using gear that is appropriate. Annual income is therefore derived therefore from a range of different activities. It is like a stone arch; if a single stone is extracted the whole edifice falls. That is why it is important for us to defend these individual small scale drift net fisheries. The knock on effects of the ban would be widely felt as vessels displaced from these sustainable fisheries try to survive in other perhaps more pressurised fisheries. Here is the law of unintended consequences often seen in play in fisheries management.
Although the Commission says that it launched a “web based consultation” on the proposed ban, very few people seem to have heard about it. Certainly the advisory councils have not had an opportunity to express an opinion. This in itself is a failure of good governance, in a matter of profound significance for a large number of small-scale fisheries.
It is important therefore that all those potentially affected by this blanket approach push back against it. Already, a broad alliance of fishermen, fishermen’s organisation, conservationists and scientists are signalling that the Commission has taken a wrong turning. We can expect some powerful member states to resist this debased version of the precautionary approach. Some fishing gears in some circumstances do pose an unacceptable threat to wildlife and it is vital that bycatch problems in those fisheries are resolved. But to revert to a discredited blanket ban approach, with all the incidental collateral damage that will cause suggests that there is something far wrong in the Commission’s thinking as it limps to the end of this Commissioner’s period of tenure.