Both sides of the Christmas break have seen intense activity at Westminster as the Fisheries…
EU Landings Obligation
The beginning of 2017 and the second year of the progressive implementation of the EU landings obligation, seems like a good point to stand back and assess how things are going and what the outlook is for the future. Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, has signalled that it his wish that the UK post-Brexit, should retain “the principle of a discard ban”. This suggests that the UK will remain fully engaged with the EU on implementing the landings obligation, through to 2019, although post-Brexit there may be opportunities for the UK’s specific arrangements to move in a different direction.
As anticipated, the application of the landings obligation to the pelagic fisheries has not been without its issues, but does not seem to have generated fundamental difficulties. There remains a question mark about how the small incidental bycatches of demersal species in pelagic fisheries will be treated after they have been landed but on the whole the feeling is that quota can be sourced to cover these catches.
It is in the mixed demersal fisheries that the implementation of the landings obligation faces most serious challenges. The facility to phase-in different species and fisheries over 2016 – 2019 has meant that, in general, the least controversial fisheries have been chosen first, leaving more time to deal with the problem of chokes that are expected to arise as a side effect of applying the landing obligation to a system of TACs and quotas in mixed fisheries. Chokes are when the exhaustion of one quota prevents the vessel, PO, country of fleet from catching its main economic quotas. The full application of the landings obligation in 2019 across all fisheries and all quota species (unless under a specific exemption) will be the testing point for the new regime.
The North Sea and North West Waters advisory councils have done a good job in flagging up the significance of the choke issue and it is understood now in a way that it was not when the legislation was conceived and adopted as part of the CFP reform in 2013. A symposium organised by the North Sea AC in Copenhagen in November provided the most comprehensive overview yet of the choke problem and the range of ways that they can be avoided, even if there is as yet a lack of clarity over which of these mitigation measures would be politically acceptable.
Avoidance of chokes could be achieved through:
- Vessels adopting more selective gear or avoidance strategies. It is accepted that this is easier in some fisheries than others
- Quota swaps and transfers
- Exemptions from the LO where selectivity is difficult or the associated costs are disproportionate (but this means that quota is deducted at the start of the year)
- Inter-annual and interspecies flexibilities
- High survival exemptions may apply if scientifically justified
There is a growing awareness that other legislation within the CFP currently make dealing with chokes more challenging and that pressure for change here too is mounting:
- The MSY timetable to bring all stocks under MSY, by 2020 at the latest, increases the problem of dealing with chokes
- The revision of the technical conservation framework is making slow headway and the old regime is incompatible with the LO
- Multi-annual plans that would allow pragmatic TAC-setting to reduce the scope for chokes in mixed fisheries are moving very slowly and may stall altogether because of Brexit
- The Relative Stability allocation keys provides a rigidity that increases the likelihood of chokes
The $64,000 question is whether the CFP’s cumbersome decision making process and the political decision making is capable of integrating European fisheries legislation so that it makes sense as a coherent whole. At present too many CFP requirements are just incompatible with each other and also incompatible with economically viable fishing fleets.
The immediate focus is how the LO should be extended in 2018. In the North Sea the Schevengingen Group (of North Sea member states) have indicated that their Joint Recommendation will bring the following species fully into the landing obligation for all gears in 2018
This means that all targeted and bycatch of these species must be landed. All other quota species will be fully brought under the landing obligation in 2019.
In North West waters the intention is to continue to reduce the thresholds to bring more vessels under the landings obligation and where possible add new species in 2018. All quota species and all fisheries will be fully under the landings obligation in 2019.
2019, by bringing the most difficult stocks and fisheries under the landings obligation, will also bring a multiplicity of challenges, the most significant is the potential for any of these to choke fisheries.
The recognition of what is up ahead has been the stimulus for some radical thinking both within the Commission and in the national administrations. The Commission for example is taking soundings on removing the TAC for Dab and Flounder as it serves no conservation purpose. Removal of TAC status on species where this is justified, or grouping two or more TACs together, where this makes sense are two of the more constructive suggestions under consideration.
The NSAC undertook some useful preliminary predictive analysis on where chokes are likely to arise and which measures might be relevant to mitigate against each choke. This work is be extended and expedited to cover the pipeline stocks for 2018.
The NWWAC has flagged up stock by stock the issues associated with each fishery and in particular the potential for chokes.
Although individual chokes may be identified and predicted, at a systemic level it may be the case that chokes are essentially unpredictable, because of the number of variables involved. We need to begin to think about the implications of this and appropriate contingency measures.
From what we can see, the Norwegians have successfully and incrementally implemented a workable discard ban with the close involvement of the fishing industry without generating major choke problems. Although it is probably true that our fisheries are a lot more complex than Norway’s, it seems to us that it would be worth studying the flexibilities made available to the Norwegian fishery that are not currently available to ours. Fewer TACs; grouped TACs; the removal of “hard stops” when a quota is exhausted. These are a few of the elements of the Norwegian system that seem to be an integral part of its success. And it will not escape notice that the Norwegian fisheries tend to be both sustainable and profitable; important objectives alongside that of minimisation of discarded fish
The elasmobranch and almost all flatfish species and nephrops species are candidates for high survival exemptions. Scientific work is under way to assess survival rates used to justify exemptions but there is a recognition that this work is unlikely to be completed before the implementation deadline in 2019. There are different views within the ACs about whether the conservation of commercial fish stocks are best served by a rigorous or a more flexible approach to the level of scientific evidence required to justify a high survival exemption.
In general terms, we think that the exemptions (de minimis and high survival) and flexibilities (inter-annual and inter-species) are much more constrained by the legislation and therefore of more limited value than perhaps was widely believed when the LO was adopted as part of the CFP reform.
The bottom line is that we think that it will not be possible to successfully and fully implement the landings obligation without further legislative change, either to the landings obligation itself or other elements of the CFP.