Irish Sea Turnaround

11th July 2017 in Fisheries Science, Irish Sea, TACs and Quotas

“I told you so” is rarely an attractive phrase. But it is difficult to avoid a tone of grim smugness when speaking about the 375% TAC increase in this year’s scientific advice for Irish Sea cod. So long regarded as a basket case, ICES has dramatically revised its perception of the stock and altered the assumptions that support its model. The advice has shifted from a zero catch in 2012, and a minimal bycatch in 2016, to a healthy allocation in 2018, with the stock considered to be above maximum sustainable yield trigger.

Irish Sea Turnaround

For something like 17 years fishermen in the Irish Sea have not been able to square the scientists’ bleak outlook with their own direct experience. In recent years, ICES has tied itself in knots on Irish Sea cod and established a working group WKIRISH, to try to understand why, even after fishing pressure on cod had been reduced to minimal levels, the stock, according to its assessment model, had not responded by rebuilding. As part of that process of re-evaluation, a benchmark review has now come up with this startling but very welcome reversal. This is reflected in this year’s ICES advice.

Fishermen’s Knowledge

Fishermen have a very direct interest in the scientific recommendations that underpin decisions on total allowable catches. These do, after all, to a significant extent determine the industry’s earnings in the following year. Because of this level of self-interest, too often in the past their views have been dismissed by scientists, fisheries administrators and ministers. That has been a mistake.

Hindsight, the companion of I told you so smugness, is of course a wonderful thing. But it is instructive to reflect on how many times the industry’s views have flown in the face of orthodoxy but have proven in the end to be closer to the truth.

A few examples:

  • The industry in the early 2000s pointed out that automatic 25% cuts in the TAC required by the EU cod recovery plan to achieve biomass targets failed to take account of the fact that Mother Nature might have other ideas. This is now accepted.
  • They also pointed out that draconian reduction of TACs in a mixed fishery would generate a problem of large scale discarding of mature fish. So it proved to be the case.
  • The case was made that punitive measures would cause significant displacement effects in adjacent areas/fisheries. Many of the management problems we face today have been caused by displacement effects
  • Fishermen opposed effort control as part of the cod recover plan on the grounds that it would generate unhelpful fishing behaviours. STECF eventually came to the same conclusion

It is now well understood that we can control fishing mortality but not biomass; that once fishing mortality has been reduced it can take some time for stocks to respond; that divergent TACs in a mixed fishery will generate serious levels of discards; that displacement and unintended consequences will follow draconian measures, as night follows day; and that “there is not a linear relationship between a reduction in fishing effort and a reduction in fishing mortality.”

This all suggests that taking the industry’s views into account during policy formulation should not be regarded as an optional extra, or consultative lip-service, but a prerequisite for a realistic understanding of the issues and therefore an integral part of a successful fisheries policy.

But it is important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The scientists may be eating humble pie on Irish Sea cod but the general outlook this year on stocks is extremely positive. Hake and North Sea plaice are at levels beyond anything seen in the historic level. Stock after stock is on the up. To quote ICES on the general picture:

"Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen a general decline in fishing mortality in the Northeast Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. The stocks have reacted positively to the reduced exploitation and we're observing growing trends in stock sizes for most of the commercially important stocks. For the majority of stocks, it has been observed that fishing mortality has decreased to a level consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – meaning levels that are not only sustainable but will also deliver high long term yields.” Eskild Kirkegaard, Chairman of the Advisory Council of ICES

The position since ICES made this statement, in July 2015, has only got better. In fisheries management terms, that is a sweet place to be.

Where we do still have problems, they tend to be those associated, not so much with the science but with the EU management framework: with getting the balance right in mixed fisheries; with the arbitrary timetable for MSY in all fisheries; and with the implementation of the EU landing obligation.

The NFFO will be active on all of these fronts during the autumn, as we head towards the quota negotiations for TACs in 2018, the last full year that the UK will be subject to decisions based on proposals made by the European Commission and adopted at December Council of Ministers.