Fisheries Bill Lords Amendments Virtue Signalling vs Sustainable Fisheries Management

24th July 2020 in Brexit, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Of the eight objectives included in the Fisheries Bill, five of them relate to fishing sustainably. And that’s fine. Without a functioning ecosystem and policies which limit fishing to safe levels, there will be no fishing industry. It makes sense too, from an economic perspective, for our management decisions to aim to achieve maximum yields, where that is a reasonable option. What fisherman would be against high sustainable yields?

Fisheries Bill Lords Amendments Virtue Signalling vs Sustainable Fisheries Management
Photo courtesy of Nina Constable Media

It is another thing, however, to give primacy to one aspect of environmental sustainability over all other objectives; and to prioritise environmental purity in the short as well as the long-term, whatever the cost. Yet, this is the force and intent of an amendment sponsored by the opposition parties in the House of Lords.

Accepting this amendment would carry serious consequences for practical fisheries management. In particular, it would tie ministers’ hands when setting quotas each year. The government would be required to set all quotas at levels which (theoretically) would deliver maximum sustainable yield, in all circumstances. No ifs, or buts. And irrespective of the costs.

The rest of this article explains what this would mean in the real world, but the core message is clear: accepting this amendment would provide a fundamental impediment to practical and effective fisheries management. We do not think that this is what the authors of the amendments intended.

Setting Quotas

Sound, pragmatic, yet principled, fisheries management decisions often require that a particular TAC (total allowable catch) to be set below MSY. This is not, as is sometimes suggested because ministers are cowed by the “powerful fishing lobby” but because it is necessary to secure the best overall fisheries outcomes.

Scientific advice on setting TACs according to MSY is presented annually on the basis of single stocks, not as they relate to one another in mixed fisheries settings. It is the responsibility of fisheries ministers (acting as fisheries managers) to balance out the tensions between different stocks in the advice. Responding to this, even the EU had to develop the concept of MSY Ranges to cope with the real world, where fish swim and are caught together, and stock abundance of individual species vary naturally in response to environmental signals. This kind of flexibility would be proscribed in the UK from 1st January, by prioritising short-term sustainability in all circumstances and under all conditions - if the amendment was accepted. Ministers would find themselves repeatedly subject to judicial review if they used their judgement that the best outcomes required a trade-off between different objectives listed in the Bill.

Mixed Fisheries

In mixed fisheries, where a range of different species are caught together, the conservation status of the individual stocks often varies. One stock, for environmental or fisheries reasons, might need to be rebuilt, whilst the others are already fished sustainably – at or around maximum sustainable yield. In these circumstances, fisheries managers might consider that a three to five-year rebuilding plan, with supplementary measures to rebuild the weak stock, would be the best way to bring that stock back up to MSY, without causing undue socio-economic harm. This pragmatic, staged, approach would be ruled out if there was a legally enforceable environmental priority.

If we still have a landing obligation along current lines, the situation would be worse. Ministers would be faced with the unpalatable choice of tying up whole fleets, when the quota for that species was exhausted - or breaking the law.

This is not an abstract theoretical argument. We currently have a real-life example in the Celtic Sea where cod, which represents less that 0.1% of the catch, threatens to close down the demersal fisheries in the South West of England, denying the fishing industry access to their main economic quotas for hake and monkfish worth respectively £7million and £19 million in landings and hundreds of jobs in fishing. The scientists confirm that hake and monkfish are harvested sustainably. Nevertheless, the fisheries for these species are jeopardised by the very low TAC set for cod to meet MSY.

Rebuilding the cod stocks in the North Sea, whilst continuing to fish for the abundant haddock and whiting stocks, presents the same challenge. Cod in all of our waters is facing a distributional shift, probably caused by warmer sea temperatures. Cod, already at its southernmost extent in our waters, is moving northwards by 12km per year. This presents a management challenge.

Similarly, whiting in the Irish Sea, which could potentially close down the nephrops (prawn) fishery worth £25 million and on which whole communities depend.

These examples illustrate that sustainable management of mixed fisheries requires necessary trade-offs between the short and long term, between different species caught together, and between the biological and the socio-economic. These necessary compromises would be impeded by giving primacy to environmental over all other criteria. It would remove our ability to apply a careful balanced approach to harvesting which takes care of both fish, and fishers, along with their communities.

Three-Legged Stool

The sustainable use of natural resources is generally understood to require three pillars: environmental, economic and social. Like a three-legged stool, if one of the pillars is missing the policy will fall over. There is abundant experience from the last 40 years which illustrates the truth of this insight. Blunt and unimaginative fisheries management measures have time after time, foundered, or generated unintended consequences. People require livelihoods and economic security as well as long term sustainability. Measures which ignore this will condemn themselves to failure one way or another. The original Fisheries Bill suggested that this important lesson had been learnt. It would be desperate if that lesson was now unlearnt.

Unintended Consequences

We have learnt that top-down, blunt, management measures in fisheries tend to generate unintended consequences, which are often of the unwelcome variety. Displacing fishing activities into adjacent areas, or other fisheries, is one of the most common knock-on effects. Increasing the level of discards and driving discards underground is another. One way of reading the history of the Common Fisheries Policy (and quite a bit of domestic UK fisheries policy) is about constant efforts to mitigate perverse side effects of well-intended legislation.

International Negotiations

In the future, we can expect that bilateral (or trilateral) international negotiations will be the main vehicle for managing shared stocks. However tough these negotiations become, they must be rooted in mutual respect for the rights and sovereignty of all of those involved. It would not be acceptable for one party to enact domestic legislation and then expect international partners to bow to it, whether they agreed with the thrust of the measures or not. That is not how international negotiations work, yet that is what the EU has brought to the table in recent years with its unilateral but mandatory requirement to set TACS at MSY by 2020. During EU/Norway negotiations, independent coastal states like Norway, with much stronger credentials on conservation of fish stocks than the CFP, have made plain their scorn for a crude attempt to shoehorn unrealistic, poorly drafted, EU domestic legislation into international negotiations. If every country insists that its domestic legislation takes priority, international fisheries negotiations would be stuck in a perpetual impasse.

If the UK wishes to avoid putting itself in the same position, this amendment must be allowed to fall.

More Rigid than the CFP

In fact, prioritising the sustainability objective would, if accepted, mean that UK law was more inflexible and less balanced than the CFP. The first objective of the CFP reads:

“The CFP shall ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long-term and are managed in a way that is consistent with the objectives of achieving economic, social and employment benefits, and of contributing to the availability of food supplies.” Article 2.1 of the Common Fisheries Policy Regulation EU 1384/13

At least the authors of the CFP recognised that there are three pillars, not one, to sustainability and these must be balanced carefully.

In-built Accountability

With a balanced portfolio of objectives, the government would remain accountable for its obligation to meet sustainability objectives. The five interrelated sustainability objectives would be given force through the Joint Fisheries Statement and Fisheries Management Plans. These instruments will provide for a more refined interpretation of the management objectives for particular circumstances and include inbuilt prioritisation of particular elements of sustainability, including:

⦁ Provisions to specify policies for restoring or maintaining a stock at sustainable levels (section6(3)(a))

⦁ Improve evidence to assess a stock’s maximum sustainable yield (section 6(3)(b)(ii)).

⦁ The requirement to follow the precautionary approach (in line with the objective) where evidence is not sufficient to assess a stock’s maximum sustainable yield (section 6(4)).

Reporting requirements will ensure that government decisions are scrutinised and that the various objectives relating sustainability are upheld over the long term (section 11).


The Bill returns to the House of Commons on the 1st September and it is at that stage that these amendments will be considered. The House will have to decide whether it prioritises virtue signalling over truly effective sustainable fisheries management.


Fisheries Bill

Fisheries objectives

The fisheries objectives are—

1. (a) the sustainability objective,

2. (b) the precautionary objective,

3. (c) the ecosystem objective,

4. (d) the scientific evidence objective,

5. (e) the bycatch objective,

6. (f) the equal access objective,

7. (g) the national benefit objective,

8. (h) the climate change objective.

Amendments introduced in the House of Lords

The “sustainability objective” is that—

1. (a) fish and aquaculture activities do not compromise environmental

sustainability in either the short or the long term;

2. (b) subject to subsection (2)(a), fishing fleets must— 15

(i) be managed to achieve economic, social and employment benefits and contribute to the availability of food supplies, and (ii) have fishing capacity that is economically viable but does not overexploit marine stocks.

The sustainability objective is the prime fisheries objective. 20

The “precautionary objective” is that—

(a) the precautionary approach to fisheries management is applied, and

(b) exploitation of marine stocks restores and maintains populations of harvested species above biomass levels capable of producing maximum sustainable yield.