Flexibility and Functional Units

29th November 2010 in Shellfish

The International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES)

The International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has for a number of years now recommended that the nephrops fisheries should be managed on functional unit (sub-area) basis, rather than on the basis of large sea areas such as the North Sea, or Area VII (West of Scotland, West of Ireland, Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and English Channel combined). There is much sense in this; whilst overall, the nephrops stocks show strong signs of being robust and stable, individual functional units can, from time to time, display signs of over-exploitation. Out of the 7 functional units in Area VII, the Porcupine Bank has exhibited signs of stress in the ICES assessments; likewise, the signals from the Farne Deeps contrast with the general picture in the North Sea.

This is common ground. A divergence in views comes however, as this scientific recommendation is translated into management measures. In typical fashion, in its proposals for 2011 the Commission has elected to propose a blunt, blanket, approach which would require the establishment of individual TACs for all of the functional units in Area VII.

It is sensible to make provision for dealing with any individual functional unit that shows signs of stress. Individual functional unit TACs however, would impose a bureaucratic rigidity that, over time, would erode the flexibility that:

  • Is to a large degree the basis for the overall stability of the stocks in the nephrops fishery
  • Provides a safety valve that is an important component of the economic viability of the nephrops fleets

A pattern of fleet deployment has been evident in the nephrops fisheries over a number of years. When a particular functional unit is underperforming, fishing effort tends to migrate to other functional units where the catches (and returns) are better. This largely self-regulating system is not perfect but it is an important reason why the nephrops has been able to absorb large amounts of additional fishing effort in recent years, as vessels transferred from the whitefish sector. The Irish Sea functional units for example have been broadly stable over 35 years. In place of this broadly successful and effective arrangement the Commission would impose an unworkable system of sub-area TACs that would remove that flexibility, add a further layer of bureaucratic complexity. It would also erode the principle of relative stability that underpins the share of the TACs received by member states.

A Safety-Net Approach

An alternative way to apply functional unit management would be to monitor the nephrops stocks by functional units and to put in place remedial measures when any functional unit shows signs of stress. This approach has already been successfully applied in 2009/10 on the Porcupine Bank, when recommendations made by the North West Waters RAC were adopted and turned into legislative provisions based on a seasonal closure on part of the Bank. The ICES assessment for this year confirms that this tailored measure appears to have been effective in reducing pressure on the Porcupine Bank stocks which have responded positively. The key point is that the measure was appropriate for and customised to the fisheries on the Porcupine Bank. Different functional units will require different measures. In due course functional unit management will be incorporated into the long term management plan currently being developed.

Is the science sufficiently accurate to underpin sensitive functional unit TACs?

It is one thing to ask assessment scientists to provide a broad brush perspective on the nephrops stocks and additionally, to highlight problems with particular functional units. It is entirely something else to ask for precision advice on individual functional units on which TACs will be set. There must be a question over whether ICES science could consistently service this management approach.

December Council

It is important that at the December Council member states reject the functional unit TAC approach as too blunt, too bureaucratic and would take us in CFP direction that would be contrary to regional, responsive, adaptive management that the a reformed CFP could deliver.

It is not unknown for the Commission to offer short term advantage, in terms of additional quota, to achieve acceptance of its longer term objectives. Only the gullible will be lured by this tactic which as we have seen often brings short term benefits and long term regrets.

Importance of Operational Flexibility

In an important contribution to the recent fisheries science conference in Ostend, the respected academic Doug Wilson from the University of Alborg, surveyed a wide range of international fisheries and asked the question: what makes for a successful recovery plan and sustainable fisheries? His research suggested that all of the successful fisheries had two common ingredients: flexibility and strong fisheries organisations. We surrender our flexibility at a high price for both stocks and fleets.