Both sides of the Christmas break have seen intense activity at Westminster as the Fisheries…
European Parliament Derails the North Sea Discard Plan
Many have predicted that the EU landings obligation - because of the top-down way it has been designed – is a car crash in the making. Not many, however, predicted the car would crash before it got out of the garage.
A minor procedural sub-Committee of the Parliament seems to have achieved this spectacular own-goal by demanding more time for consideration of the Commission’s delegated act, which is the legal vehicle for the North Sea discard plan; this plan has been painstakingly put together over the course of the past year by the relevant member states, working with the North Sea Advisory Council.
The implications of this piece of petty procedural point scoring are as yet unclear but on the face of it, it means that instead of a phased introduction of the demersal landings obligation from 1st January 2016, vessels fishing in the North Sea will be legally obliged to land all regulated species. No phasing, no exemptions, no ways of dealing with inevitable chokes in mixed fisheries. Under the CFP, the discard plans, formulated at the regional seas level by member states, must go to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers for scrutiny. It was expected that both institutions would provide a rapid stamp of approval because that is the way that the new regionalisation of policy has been envisaged and designed. The sub-committee of coordinators, however, has demanded extra time to consider the draft plan, pushing implementation into late February. Unless some way can be found to reverse this act of folly, the landings obligation, unmediated or softened by any discard plan will come into force in the North Sea at one minute after midnight on 1st January. The delay only applies to the North Sea but is not without implications for North West Waters. This act of petty stupidity is disrespectful of the member states concerned and the North Sea Advisory Council, who have both worked to limit the disruptive potential of the landings obligation by phasing its introduction. More importantly, it is disrespectful of the fishermen who have been preparing for the landings obligation only to have the goalposts shifted 20 days before it comes into force. The North Sea discard plan requires vessels targeting haddock, nephrops, plaice, sole or northern prawn to land those species in 2016, with additional species to be added each year until 2019 when all quota species would be included. Unless this decision can be reversed, from 1st January all demersal vessels operating in the North Sea are potentially exposed to prosecution for infringement of a regulation with which they do not have the means comply. All the guidance notes anticipating a phased approach, which carefully justified specific exemptions would be worthless. Realistically, there should be no threat of enforcement action on vessels in the short-term simply because member states have been caught as unawares as the industry. But that is only of limited comfort.
One of the reasons why regionalisation was included as a key feature of the 2013 CFP reform was the recognition that co-decision with the European Parliament would make fisheries policy even more cumbersome, remote, and inflexible than decisions taken alone by the Council of Ministers. Regionalisation was seen as a necessary step towards decentralisation and bottom up decision-making, circumventing the need for detailed issues such as legal mesh sizes and twine thicknesses to be decided at the European level. Specific provision was included within the CFP for regional discard plans to be developed. Beyond the immediate chaos for fisheries administrators and fishermen, this petty and myopic decision by an obscure procedural committee raises the question of whether regionalisation is going to be allowed to function, or will be strangled at birth by procedure.
The NFFO is talking directly to senior officials within DEFRA to see how the damage can be limited and whether this decision can be reversed. We really don't need this distraction only a few days before the beginning of the December Council when crucial decisions will be made on next year’s quotas and a moratorium on catching bass. Not least, what will the implications for quota uplift to accommodate the species coming under the landings obligation be? Intense discussions are being held with lawyers, other member states and the Commission to resolve the issue through short term fix - or the EP finding reverse gear.