EU Cod Management Plan – Meeting with the Commission and Member States to Discuss Interim Arrangements

28th March 2012

STECF reported last year that the current EU Management Plan was failing to meet its objectives

Background

Since STECF reported last year that the current EU Management Plan was failing to meet its objectives, and was flawed in some quite fundamental ways, it has only been a matter of time until changes would be proposed by the European Commission. However, that matter of time has taken on enormous significance, given that the arrival of co-decision, under the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, means that the full review and revision of the plan and possible replacement by a full multi-species plan could take another two years; and that is only if the dispute between the Council/Commission and the Parliament over respective competencies with regard to harvest control rules can be resolved.

In the meantime, it has become increasingly untenable for the Commission to ignore calls from member states and the regional advisory councils, for an interim regime that addresses the most immediate problems associated with the currently dysfunctional plan. This pressure was evident in the December Council when, in response to member states’ calls for urgent revisions in light of the STECF evaluation, Commissioner Damanaki indicated that she would come forward with proposals for a revised plan in the first half of 2012. Although the Commission has apparently now disowned that commitment, it convened a technical meeting on 20th March, in Brussels to discuss with member states and the RACs what steps might be taken to improve the situation, as an interim arrangement pending a full replacement of the current plan by a multi-species plan; the interim arrangements, it was made clear, would be undertaken under-co-decision with the European Parliament.

The Commission also made clear that the interim arrangements would only be satisfactorily introduced if there was a high degree of cooperation between the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. The aim is to have them in place before the December Council.

Effort Freeze

During the first part of the meeting, member state after member state lined up to indicate that the central problem with the current plan lay in Article 12 and its requirements to annually reduce the amount of effort (KW/Days) available to member states to manage their fleets. It was all too easy to see that without intervention, an end point would be reached very soon in which the amount of effort allocated to member state fleets would be zero, given that the scale of the annual reductions were between 10% and 25%. This would be crippling for the fleets affected but without any degree of confidence that cod stocks would be rebuilt as a result.

STECF

The STECF report questioned the assumptions behind the rationale for effort control - notably a belief that there is a reasonably linear relationship between reductions in effort and reductions of fishing mortality of cod. In light of experience, (although at the point of the STECF review in 2011, the Cod Plan had been in place something short of three years) this no longer seemed a tenable assumption. Furthermore, the parts of the Plan which exempted vessels whose activities caught very little cod (Article 11) or which the provisions showed evidence of encouraging positive fishing patterns, such as cod avoidance or discard reduction (Article 13), were hampered by unnecessary bureaucratic constraints and a lack of clarity. STECF seems to be of the view that effort control, although a blunt tool in its own right does have the merit of compelling vessels to adopt fishing patterns to escape time at sea restrictions, if the escape routes are available and aligned with various forms of cod avoidance.

Those member states with fleets caught in this position (notably the UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Netherlands and Ireland) were adamant that an effort freeze at 2012 levels was their priority for interim arrangements. (Only this member states with a marginal interest in the cod fishery or the consequences of the Cod Plan (Belgium and Sweden) voiced different views.

Exemptions

In principle there had from the outset been agreement that fishing activities which catch no or very low amounts of cod should be exempt from the effort regime. There was a general complaint that the process for achieving these exemptions in practice was cumbersome and lacking clarity.

There was some discussion about whether an exemption for vessels under fully documented fisheries and carrying fully functioning CCTV monitoring should be exempt through Article 11 or a separate, entirely new clause. Some opposition to fully documented fisheries came from those member states that were not affected by effort control.

Discards

The meeting agreed that discards of cod in some fisheries such as the North Sea and West of Scotland, was impeding the recovery process, as a source of unwanted mortality. Effort control had originally been introduced to underpin TACs, which at the time (2002) were being undermined by over-quota landings. STECF no longer believe that misreported landings are a major issue but there remains a substantial of doubt in the assessment relating to unknown mortality. This may be unrecorded discards, high natural mortality or other factors. TAC generated discards in mixed fisheries, unselective gear, or the catch composition rules all contribute to high levels of cod discards. A number of member states are trialling various forms of fully documented fisheries, as a way of tackling TAC driven discards and various aspects of this were discussed and clarified. Providing quota and exemptions from the effort regime are key factors in persuading vessel operators to enter catch quota and other forms of discard reduction initiatives.

Buyback Provisions

The Cod Management Plan cannot be said to be a complete failure, although STECF reported that greater reductions in fishing mortality of cod(around 40% in the North Sea) had been achieved under the previous Cod Recovery Plan (2002 – 2008) -when a number of publically funded decommissioning schemes had been in place in the member states. The new plan however had pioneered the encouragement of various kinds of cod avoidance, and used effort buyback provisions to make these attractive to participation the fishing businesses subject to effort control. Although open to different interpretations and in some respects unduly complex, the buyback provisions had generated a wide range of cod avoidance initiatives:

  • Real Time Closures
  • Catch Quotas (Fully Documented Fisheries)
  • More Selective Gears

Member states and RACs were clear that strengthening this approach as a key component of interim arrangements would remove some of the complexity inhibiting the Plan from securing its objectives, ease the economic burden on the fleets and reduce the administrative burden and remove anomalies.

Data Poor Stocks

There was broad agreement, amongst member states and STECF, that the provisions which (under Article 9) apply a 25% annual reduction to effort and TAC on those stocks where ICES faces a problem in producing an analytical assessment were inappropriate and unfair. The current work on the Cod Benchmark and within ICES may help to ease this situation in this regard. Article 9 remains a blunt and crude approach to data deficient fisheries that should be replaced by a more focused and proportionate fishery-by-fishery approach using the best available data.

RACs

The North Sea and North West Waters RACs in their submissions made the point that:

  • The Cod Management Plan had suffered from being an example of a blanket, top-down approach; success would be more likely with measures tailored to the characteristics of the fisheries concerned; the conservation status of the stocks, the quality of the scientific assessments and the stock dynamics in the West of Scotland and Irish Sea were clearly different to those in the North Sea
  • An effort pause or freeze was the most immediate priority for an interim regime
  • A simpler and clearer route for groups of vessels seeking exemption from the effort regime would be welcome
  • Progress begun under the buyback/cod avoidance/discard reduction provisions were promising and should be encouraged
  • In the West of Scotland and Irish Sea the task of reinstating full and credible assessments was intertwined with the development of an approach that could rebuild the cod stocks
  • It was hoped that the ICES benchmark process for West of Scotland and Irish Sea cod and ICES’ work on providing a numerical TAC recommendation for data poor stocks would help navigate a path towards a coherent and effective approach
  • There was no guarantee that any management measures would be successful against the indications of high levels of natural mortality and environmental conditions in flux
  • In some cases improvements to the cod recovery regime could be brought about through improvements to the procedures rather than the legal text, with protocols indicating clearly what was required of the member states, STECF and the industry.

The Commission

Unsurprisingly, the ball now lies with the Commission. The strong messages going in from the member states and the RACs, particularly on the need for an effort pause, leaning heavily on the emerging advice from STECF, were clear. The positions however, were merely noted by the Commission which provided no indication of what would be taken forward into a proposal, although it is evident that the Commission has its own agenda in some areas of the Plan.

There remains a residual impression that the Commission still seems wedded to the notion, against the weight of evidence and the STECF report, that the only real problem with the Cod Management Plan is that it has been misunderstood and member states have not implemented its provisions with sufficient vigour.

How the Commission will respond depends on a variety of factors, including the Commissioner’s views. A draft proposal is expected in September.

Member states could not have stated more forcefully that they would be very unhappy if they were to face another December Council of the basis of a flawed Cod Management Plan with further annual reductions in effort.

If ever there was an argument for a more flexible, regionalised CFP, with adaptable measures tailored to the characteristics of specific fisheries, the Cod Management Plan provides it.