This was a different kind of December Council in a number of important ways. Many delegations…
Irish Sea Shores up its Position
Approaching the turn of last year the Irish Sea faced an appalling prospect.
The Commission had proposed a 19% reduction in the TAC for prawns – the economic mainstay of the Irish Sea; it had also proposed that the Area VII nephrops TAC should be divided into functional unit mini-TACs, constraining a vital flexibility for the fleets; also the EU cod management plan agreed in November 2008, prescribed a 25% cut in days at sea to be implemented in 2011.
Although the Irish Sea still faces huge challenges, things look a bit better now. After strenuous lobbying, backed by credible scientific and economic evidence, the cut in the prawn TAC was limited to a more absorbable 3% reduction; functional unit TACs were seen off as an unjustifiably bureaucratic approach; and a review of the EU Cod Management Plan was secured, against mounting doubts over its relevance to conditions in the Irish Sea.
Looking forward, the Northern Irish fishing industry is taking stock of its position and preparing for the future:
- Industry leaders are in discussions with DARD, the Northern Irish fisheries department, over a decommissioning scheme that would allow around 17 vessels to voluntarily leave the fleet, improving the prospects for the vessels which will continue fishing. Decommissioning has proven in the North Sea cod and plaice fisheries to be an effective tool in regenerating depleted stocks
- Despite the crippling prospect of a 25% reduction in permitted days at sea, a combination of astute rationing of available days and the extra days made available by the departing vessels, suggests that it will be possible to for the fleet to live within the effort constraints, for 2011 anyway
- Scientific sampling work has confirmed that the Northern Irish fleet has very low levels of discards of cod but relatively high discards of haddock and whiting. It is clearly in the industry’s long term interest to reduce these substantially and successful trials have been undertaken on a double square mesh net configuration adapted to conditions in the Irish Sea. The task is now to press for amendments to EU regulations that would permit the general use of this gear substantially reduce discards of haddock and whiting whilst retaining marketable catch
- The impact of the EU Cod Recovery Plan and its successor, the EU Cod Management Plan, has wreaked destruction on the Northern Irish whitefish fleet – reduced from 40 vessels to 2 boats. And the net benefit of the battery of measures (from gear configurations in 1999 to effort limits in 2010 and everything in between) has been - in terms of rebuilding the cod stocks and according to the science - close to zero. The Review of the EU Cod Plan at least offers the opportunity to scrutinise the biological processes and the fisheries, to begin to determine what is going on. Does the problem lie in a decline in the productivity of the stock? ; is there a problem at the larval stage? or does the problem lie in the fishery?. Rather than continuing with the existing tried and failed approach, the Cod Review, done properly, offers the possibility of getting onto the right track, after a decade of wandering in the wilderness.
The Irish Sea is a relatively small marine space and measures like real time closures are not easily applied. Equally, it is clear that the stock and fisheries dynamics in the Irish Sea are very different from the North Sea; yet the Irish Sea has in the main, been treated as an adjunct to the North Sea. It has been evident for some time that the Irish Sea requires its own solutions based on the specifics of its ecosystem, its stocks and its fisheries.