NFFO Shellfish Policy: Discussion Paper

16th September 2011 in Shellfish, Shellfish

The idea of capping effort in the UK crab and lobster fisheries has been in circulation for many years without making any significant headway.


The idea of capping effort in the UK crab and lobster fisheries has been in circulation for many years without making any significant headway. The scientific argument for a cap is that whilst we don’t know with any degree of precision how close we are to the tipping point, the continuous expansion in fishing effort in the crab and lobster fisheries (measured in terms of the increasing number of pots in the water) could seriously jeopardise stocks if the current favourable environmental conditions are discontinued.

The case is also made that sensible conservation measures taken early are much less difficult for the industry to absorb than when stocks are in decline and the economic pressures greater.

These conservation arguments have been given additional impetus by periodic price collapses in the brown crab market caused by seasonal overproduction in relation to market demand.

For many years the favoured approach advanced by scientists and Defra was the application of a national pot limitation scheme. However, problems foreseen in implementing and enforcing such a national scheme, and strong resistance from some parts of the shellfish sector, have meant that such a national scheme has never reached take off speed; although local pot limitation schemes have been successfully applied in Jersey and Northumbria.

Within Defra policy thinking, pot limitation has now been overtaken by rights-based management as the favoured approach to capping fishing effort. Internationally, within the CFP and within Defra, the widespread view is that defining and allocating specific fishing rights to the industry carries a range of conservation and economic advantages. The case for extending a rights-based approach to the crab and lobster fisheries has been given additional impetus through ministers’ decision (subject to consultation) to address the issue of latent capacity in the under-10m fleet in England through the allocation of defined rights in the form of Fixed Quota Allocations. On the evidence of previous experience, vessels denied access to quota species will immediately, or over time, redirect effort towards non-quota stocks, of which shellfish are currently amongst the most valuable.

Rights Based Management

Pre-consultation discussions with Defra officials, including dialogue within the NFFO Shellfish Committee, suggest that the Defra approach being considered would:

  • Define and allocate fishing rights to those identified as active within the crab and lobster fisheries using a recent reference period to determine eligibility
  • Establish fishing rights that would define an entitlement to a % share of a national TAC
  • Allocate rights based on a track record of participation in the crab and lobster fisheries during a reference period (probably 2007-10, or the highest 12 months within that period)
  • Apply rights to sub-divisions of English territorial waters based on ICES assessment areas: e.g. Western Central North Sea, Southern North Sea, Eastern Channel, Western Channel and Approaches, Celtic Sea and Irish Sea.
  • Encourage entitlement holders to form producer organisations, transfer, trade and swap shellfish FQAs
  • Preclude fishing vessel licence holders without a track record from receiving FQAs; however they will still be permitted to buy or lease FQAs
  • Possibly withhold a proportion of entitlements and held in reserve then used to encourage new entrants
  • Apply catch limits (to all intents and purposes, a national TAC). As it is acknowledged that the stock assessments for crab and lobster are not robust, the national TAC would be set for 5 years (i.e. no annual changes within the 5 year period)
  • Aspire towards an all-UK scheme but Defra acknowledges that the devolved administrations may wish to follow different policies and that the European CFP route is full of pitfalls

Any aspect of these ideas may change before formal consultation and certainly before decisions are made and implemented. But they do give an idea of Defras intended direction of travel, especially when seen against the background of domestic quota reform and CFP reform in which rights based management is a central theme.

Active Fleet

The operators in the active shellfish fleet are those most likely to support rights-based management, although not without reservations and concerns, nor with unanimity. On the whole, the active shellfish fleet is willing to initiate and implement a range of conservation measures. However, the argument is made with some validity, that the benefits of such short term sacrifices would be dissipated if vessels in other fisheries continue to be allowed to change their pattern of fishing to target shellfish to take advantage of improved stocks; this would increase effort in the shellfish sector and jeopardise progress made. The solution to this problem is to create a barrier against the transfer of fishing new effort into the shellfish sector; and most particularly, to block the many currently dormant or barely active licences being attached to highly active shellfish vessels. Ring fencing the shellfish fleet, from this perspective, is the first and necessary step towards an effective conservation regime, providing a degree of security and foundation for longer term planning.

Amongst the active shellfish fleet there is broad agreement on this first step. Thereafter there is a range of views on the most effective way forward:

  • Those who would accept the benefits of a system of rights-based management, with quantitative limits on landings of crab and lobster in English waters
  • Those who favour pot limitations as an alternative means of capping effort, especially those schemes that allow for flexibility at local level
  • Those who favour measures targeted at the higher catching vivier sector only, for example a tie-up period
  • Those in the vivier fleet who favour voluntary constraints which tie in other vessels of the same class from other parts of the UK and from Ireland, France and possibly other EU member states

Inshore Flexibility

Historically, one of the main sources of resilience in the fishing industry generally but especially in the inshore fleet, has been the ability to change target species and gears to adapt rapidly to new stocks and market conditions. Over the past fifteen or twenty years this flexibility has been eroded as licensing and quota restrictions have progressively pigeon- holed the fleet into administratively convenient categories. The extension of rights-based management into the shellfish sector is strongly opposed by those who see it as a step too far in stripping the inshore fleet from important flexibility. This, it is argued can have adverse consequences from a resource management perspective as well as the economics of running a small vessel economically. Pigeon-holing removes an important safety-valve when the abundance of a particular species falters. Vessels are constrained from moving into alternative fisheries where the stocks may be more robust. It also prevents adaption to meet changing market conditions and opportunities.

In a mirror image of the argument for ring-fencing, the case is made for what the French call a polyvalent of multivalent fleet, broadly defined and with maximum flexibility. Even without human influences stocks fluctuate over time and it is misconceived to subdivide the fleet into discrete impenetrable components that prevents adjustment to this biological as well as changing market realities.

NFFO Position

It is clear from the above that in developing a coherent and meaningful NFFO shellfish policy, we are confronted with two mutually incompatible viewpoints with narratives that draw on different aspects of the issue but which both have a strong internal logic. Both are supported to some degree or other by different parts of the NFFO’s membership.

The only corridor between the two positions in Defra’s approach to rights based management is the suggestion that although vessels without the requisite track record will receive no shellfish FQAs, they would be permitted to subsequently buy shellfish FQAs against which they could fish.

It is unlikely given the different objective interests and logics that the Federation could broker a consensus position between these two viewpoints, although the NFFO Shellfish Committee has provided a good forum where the issues have been discussed and analysed in a thorough, mature, and good humoured way.

Beyond the issue of ring-fencing vs. flexibility NFFO Shellfish Policy could usefully define the elements of a progressive approach to shellfish management that would be broadly acceptable to its membership.

Elements of a Shellfish Policy: for Discussion

A possible NFFO Shellfish Policy could take account of:

  • The distinction between the inshore fleet in which catches are made by relatively small (generally under 12m) vessels and the offshore, nomadic offshore fleet whose catches of brown crab are of a magnitude higher; taking account those fisheries which have extended offshore (like Bridlington) but are still prosecuted by non-vivier vessels
  • We could support a cap on the expansion of the high-catching sector of the fleet through a special shellfish licence that would restrict entry to this part of the shellfish fleet; the rest of the (inshore) shellfish fleet however would address stock conservation through regionalised and customised management measures and would not be subject to such a cap
  • We could argue that Defra’s ideas for extending rights based management to the shellfish sector are unconvincing for the following reasons:
  • Effective rights based-management requires secure and exclusive rights and that would not be the case as outside the six mile limit the resource shared with other member states; there is also a danger that the UK shellfish industry could disadvantage its future prospects by restricting itself at this juncture if landings are subsequently used to determine a relative stability share of the resource
  • We do not consider that the stock assessments for shellfish are of a quality that would allow for a level of precision that could reliably produce regional TACs; although this might not be a problem in the first instance with a fixed “national TAC” set for five years, it would quickly become a problem if a more restrictive approach was envisaged
  • We have to concede that if Defra go ahead with the extension of rights base management to the inshore fleet, and latent licences will receive nil FQAs without an additional constraint on licence transfers, there is a probability of further migration of effort into the shellfish sector; the question that we have to ask ourselves is: is this a price worth paying for retaining the traditional flexibility in the inshore sector?