Many of the really difficult issues facing our industry arise from how to manage mixed fisheries. From a fishing vessel perspective mixed fisheries offer an opportunity to catch a range of species that have market value.
But multi-species, multi-gear and multi-jurisdiction fisheries were never going to be easy to manage and the most intractable problems we face from a fisheries management point of view can often be traced back to the core issue of how to maximise catch of healthy stocks whilst providing protection for vulnerable species.
It is now recognised that the Commission’s blunt approach to the cod stock over the last decade has been a textbook case of the pitfalls to avoid. An exclusive focus on a single stock; brutal but unfocused measures; and ignoring the need to secure the support and involvement of the stakeholders have led to what has politely been described as a sub-optimal outcome. Even where cod stocks are recovering, this is likely to be in spite of, rather than because of, most of the measures put in place by the EU since 2002.
Belatedly, the Commission has recognised one of the core realities of our demersal fisheries; these are mixed fisheries, exploiting multi-species complexes and the management regime needs to take this fully into account.
It is however, one thing to say that a multi-species, mixed fishery, approach is required. It is quite another to be specific about what this looks like in concrete terms.
It is for this reason that the North Sea, the North Western Waters and the Baltic RACs have decided to convene a major conference on the management of mixed fisheries. The conference will invite world class experts, fisheries managers and representatives from the fishing industry to discuss the various dimensions of exploiting multi-species fisheries. A report of the proceedings will capture the best insights and perspectives and be used to inform the development of multi-annual management plans for a range of mixed fisheries.
Details are being finalised but it is likely that the conference will be held in Copenhagen in early March.
The Celtic Sea is at the cutting edge of mixed fisheries issues because of the complex mix of species and the wide range of fleets that exploit them in these waters. The North West Waters RAC is already heavily involved in developing advice on a multi-annual management plan for the Area VII f and g part of the Celtic Sea. The RAC recently wrote to the Commission proposing scientific work to underpin the new RAC advice. Inevitably a multi-species approach involves trade-offs between different management options and fisheries scientists have an important role to play in clarifying and proposing those options. The final choices from those options should however lie with the fisheries managers working closely with the principal stakeholders in the fisheries concerned. All this presupposes a regional management framework, which is why the outcome of the CFP reform is so critical in this respect.
The fisheries in the Irish Sea are no less in need of a break with the single species focus that has dominated management decisions to date. Uncertainties about changes in the natural mortality rate may go a substantial way in explaining the weak response of the cod stock to a decade of recovery measures. A management approach which incorporates ecosystem considerations is less likely to be surprised by non-responsive stocks. Again, the important starting point is to develop a range of realistic management options on which both RACs and managers can base their advice/decisions.
Many of the main commercial stocks in the North Sea are already under some form of management plan. Often however, these are simple harvest control rules that do not take into account species interactions, or mixed fisheries issues, much less a full-blown ecosystem approach.
STECF has been tasked by the Commission to develop an impact assessment with various management options as a replacement for the current EU Cod Management Plan. The recently NFFO attended the scoping meeting for this potentially very important work in Edinburgh and made a presentation on behalf of the RACs on the key elements that should be taken into account in the forthcoming review. We will continue to take the opportunity to be involved in this work until the final report on a revised approach to managing the cod stocks within a multi-annual and multi-species approach is complete.