Effort Control: Confusion, Confrontation but Precious Little Conservation

5th December 2011 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

It would be hard to imagine a fisheries policy instrument than the EU effort control regime that causes so much confusion and grief for so little return in conservation terms.

After one false start, with the 2002-2008 Cod Recovery Plan, days-at-sea restrictions were repackaged and sold to ministers as a more flexible system of kilowatt days. Now the Cod Management Plan whichgives member states a “pot” of kilowatt days to manage, along with scope for effort buyback, in return for various kinds of cod avoidance and discard reduction, is mired in controversy.

The Commission’s STECF has evaluated the plan and found it to be flawed in fundamental ways, not least in its basic assumption that by reducing permitted time at sea a proportionate reduction in fishing mortality is obtained. The evidence suggests that this is not the case and what’s more shouldn’t be expected. There is however, now confusion about what to do about a plan that isn’t working in the way that it was intended but can now only be fully revised through the cumbersome co-decision process with the European Parliament, which could take a minimum of two years. STECF has been tasked to provide options for a revised approach to rebuilding the cod stocks, along with a full impact assessment for each option. It will report sometime next year.

Confusion also reigns about the Commission’s interpretation of the effort buyback provisions and the amount of effort used by member states to reward positive behaviours such as observing real time closures, using more selective gears and the Catch Quota trials. Unless a solution is found quickly, this bean counting approach by the Commission has the potential to derail the conservation initiatives under the buyback provisions that STECF say is one of the few parts of the Cod Management Plan that is working.


The original rationale for days-at-sea restriction was the belief that it could address the problem of over-quota landings by underpinning TACs. Later this justification was supplemented by the view that it could contribute to reducing discards. Different means, like the registration of buyers and sellers, have successfully ended the era of large scale black landings and it is now appreciated that restricting time at sea has little influence on what vessels do at sea, including discarding. So, even if effort control had proven to be an effective means of reducing fishing mortality, which it hasn’t, the original reasons why it was introduced are no longer there.

Stocks and Conservation

In the meantime, the cod stocks in EU waters have developed according to their own regional dynamics and in response to those measures that have been effective. The Eastern Baltic stock has rebounded dramatically; the North Sea stock continues to make steady progress, although it is still under the limit reference point. It is difficult to discern what is happening with the Irish Sea and West of Scotland because of the poor quality of the assessment but the general scientific view is that some kind of ecosystem effect is impeding recovery, and in the latter that is likely to be the impact of an expanded grey seal population. The Celtic Sea which (after our and others’ efforts) was never included under the EU Cod Management Plan and therefore the effort regime, is seeing the cod stock recovering strongly.

Fisheries science acknowledges that under-recorded catches which have been a problem in the past have now been pushed to the margin, mainly but not exclusively by tighter landing controls. Decommissioning schemes in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark and Ireland have played a significant role in reducing fishing pressure on the cod stocks. And more selective gear has been in use in some fisheries.

These measures have all contributed, although it isn’t possible to attribute relative weight to one or other. The one instrument that has yet to prove of any direct value in conservation terms is effort control.

Why Effort Control?Why is the Commission wedded to effort control when the evidence since 2002 and from examples from around the world suggests that it is a blunt and generally ineffective measure?

One view could be is that it is an instrument suited to a top-down, command and control approach. All it requires from the Commission is an annex each December in the TACs and Quotas Regulation specifying the number of days by gear type: this is convenient, neat and clean from an administrator’s point of view - but a nightmare to implement by the member states and amounts to insolvency notice for large parts of the fleet - if allowed to proceed to its conclusion.

What Now?

We seem to have reached an impasse where it is no longer plausible to believe that effort control is useful instrument in rebuilding the cod stocks and safeguarding the fleets that depend on mixed fisheries that include cod. But meanwhile, we are tied into a Cod Plan that could take to 2014 to change, and which requires pre-programmed reductions of up to 25% in effort to continue annually.

Something has to give.

Common sense would suggest that we should build on the parts of the Cod Plan that are working, and the progress that has been made so far. STECF indicates that the buyback provisions, although too complex and ambiguous, have generated initiatives that have reduced cod discards and contributed to cod avoidance. This requires the Commission and the affected member states to work collaboratively to find a rational solution. There can be no mileage in pursuing a bankrupt approach that would put whole fleets out of business whilst wrecking the only part of the Cod Management Plan that works.

The decisions taken in the next two weeks will be critical.

Finally, it is worth recalling that STECF has concluded that a cod management plan that has the support and involvement of the stakeholders that are subject to it, is more likely to be successful than one which does not