Industry Initiative on North Sea Cod

25th November 2019 in North Sea

One of the few bright spots in the depressing downturn of the North Sea cod stock has been the way that the fishing industries of the countries affected have taken ownership of the problem - and worked collaboratively to develop workable solutions. This is the first time that the fishing associations right across the North Sea, including Norway, which is outside the EU and CFP, have cooperated in a collegiate way.

Industry Initiative on North Sea Cod

Shortly after ICES advice, recommending a 70% reduction in the TAC, was published in June, an initial meeting was convened by the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association, primarily to address the potential loss of Marine Stewardship Council accreditation but also to understand how equivalence of any new measures could be delivered. Scottish, English, and Danish fishing associations met in Copenhagen in July to discuss what could be done to mitigate the consequences of a dramatic reduction in the TAC and put in place effective remedial measures. A further meeting which included Norwegian colleagues was held in Copenhagen in August. On the EU side, the landing obligation, which came fully into force on 1st January 2019, has raised the spectre of a choke* early in the New Year which would prevent the fleets from taking their main economic quotas in 2020. The scientific projections suggest that the 78% of the haddock catch and 72% of the whiting catch would be lost if a low TAC for cod caused a choke. It goes without saying that this eventuality would carry catastrophic consequences for the fleets involved.

Against the background of this potentially dire outcome, over the summer and into early autumn, the fishing industry group was widened to include all countries potentially affected.

A paper with proposals was finalised and presented to the Scheveningen group of North Sea Member States and the European Commission. A further iteration of the paper was presented to both during the first round of EU/Norway negotiations held in London 18th to 22nd November. The Norwegian Industry presented the same paper to Norwegian officials. The Commission has acknowledged that the paper has significantly shaped the emerging approach being developed by EU and Norway, although work continues on a final package and won’t be finally agreed until the second round scheduled for the first week of December in Bergen.

Content

The content of the industry paper draws attention to the complex of issues surrounding North Sea cod, in particular:

  • The northward shift in the distribution of the stock and the signs of ecosystem changes which are in play – it is calculated that North Sea cod is moving north at 12 kilometres per annum, leaving next to no cod in the Southern North Sea but major concentrations around Shetland
  • Uncertainties in the stock assessments, including a retrospective bias which each year tends to underestimate fishing pressure and overestimate the size of the stock – the adjustment required explains the magnitude of the cut in TAC recommended
  • The potential for cod to choke other important fisheries in the North Sea demersal fisheries
  • The pitfalls and lessons learnt from previous (ultimately successful) cod recovery plans
  • The legal obligations within the CFP, in addition to the MSY timetable, which obliges the parties to take into account mixed fisheries complexities, the potential for chokes and the socio-economic impact
  • The fact that North Sea cod is a jointly managed stock with Norway
  • The need to take into account the latest scientific advice including the revised stock assessments incorporating the quarter three survey results – this has already reduced the scale of the TAC reduction required to rebuild the cod stock in a single year from minus 70% to minus 61%

The paper makes the case for an integrated package of remedial measures which moderate the level of TAC reduction but support a range of supplementary measures designed to reduce fishing pressure on cod and allow incoming year classes to rebuild the stock. The suggested measures include:

  • Seasonal closed areas to protect spawning stock
  • Real Time closures (Current juvenile regulation)
  • Move-on provision
  • Precautionary areas linked a number of access conditions

Ground-breaking

The industry initiative on cod is ground-breaking in a number of ways. The demersal industry is large and extremely heterodox in terms of fleets, gears, target species, degree of cod in the catch, national interests etc. In the past this has been a huge obstacle to speaking with a united voice. The environmental NGO’s rigid views on achieving MSY by 2020 and Norway’s central role as a third country with joint management rights, ruled out the North Sea Advisory Council as a potential host for the necessary discussions and so the necessary dialogue has been rather ad hoc, with meetings mainly in Copenhagen , Brussels and London.

The urgency of finding a practical, workable, solution that would steadily rebuild the cod stock whilst maintaining the fabric of the fishing industry, has been the major driver in overcoming the obstacles involved in international cooperation, to deliver a consensus position paper with broad support.

Conclusion

At this stage, it is unclear what has triggered the downturn in the cod stock in the North Sea. Probably there are environmental changes at work as well as changes within the fishery. Whilst it is vital to get a handle on what is driving these changes and make the necessary adjustments to the management regime, urgent action is required to prevent the situation on cod getting worse.

Important lessons have been learnt from previous cod recovery plans. The most important of these is that simply cutting the total allowable catch is no guarantee that this will lead to a reduction in fishing mortality. For this reason, the industry paper and now the managing authorities involved, are focused on the design of a balanced package of measures which lays the foundations for real recovery of the stock. Cosmetic measures, including an eye-watering TAC reduction, may satisfy the media and some of the more na├»ve NGOs, but it won’t deliver stock recovery. That will require well-designed measures which have the understanding and support of the fishing industry. That is why the work of the industry itself in this ground-breaking initiative is so important.

Note: A choke occurs in a mixed fishery under the EU landing obligation, when the exhaustion of the quota for one species, which must be landed, prevents the vessel, fleet or country from prosecuting fisheries on the remainder of the stocks in that area for the rest of the year