No More Dog’s Breakfast? A Bonfire of Technical Conservation Rules?

23rd July 2014 in Discards, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

There are many reasons to be concerned about the way that the EU landings obligation is implemented and the discard ban will be the intense focus of much of the Federation’s work over the next few years. Here however, we discuss what may be one of the positives that could be taken from the new regime. In a nutshell, and depending on how it’s implemented, the landings obligation could herald an escape from much of the morass of technical rules which can make fishermen’s lives a misery; into a new era in which fishermen have much more control over their day to day activities.

Discard Ban

Much progress has been made over the last 10 years or so in adapting fishing gear to be more selective. Often, in response to pressures to reduce bycatch of cod and discards, a wide range of gears have been trialled with greater or lesser success. Many of the most successful have been put into use and have contributed to the general trends of falling fishing mortality and reduced levels of discards. Square mesh panels, various grids and gear configurations are amongst some of the changes incorporated into the gear design.

Despite this progress, legislating to require fishermen to use gear configured in a particular way through blanket rules is far from easy. What makes sense in one size of vessel, or zone, may not make sense in another. Interpretation of highly technical rules which may have been poorly drafted in the first place, is a problem for both fishermen and enforcement officers. It is widely recognised that the main instrument governing gear selectivity in EU fisheries (EU Regulation 850/98 – the Technical Conservation Regulation) is a dog’s breakfast, and has been so from the day it was introduced. Its catch composition rules have generated discards. It is full of contradictions and inconsistencies. It is incompatible with other EU regulations, such as the Cod Recovery Plan. After a generation of confused and confusing legislation, scientists considered that the average mesh size in use in the North Sea had become smaller. The technical conservation rules had therefore played no role in the rebuilding of the cod stocks.Could there be any greater indictment of the Common Fisheries Policy’s approach to selectivity?

Generally positive selectivity initiatives have become a nightmare once ensnared in the EU’s legislative morass. The square mesh panel, for example, has proven to be a useful and adaptable means of reducing unwanted catch, but legislating for the right mesh size and locating the panel in the right place in the net to optimise escape of unwanted catch, whilst at the same time retaining marketable catch has generated endless controversy. There is no silver bullet solution and compromises are exactly that, compromises, which leaves everyone unhappy, either because of lost marketable catch, difficulty in handling, or failure to achieve its object of releasing unwanted catch.

Selectivity under the landings obligation - Bonfire of the regulations?

There are, at this stage, many unknowns about the EU landings obligation which will come into force on 1st January 2016 for our demersal fisheries. However one thing, even now, is quite clear: there will be a big incentive on fishing vessels to find ways to reduce unwanted catch of quota species. This has got major implications for the future of selectivity in fishing.

Unless there is a specific exemption (and we don't know at this stage which species, fisheries or gears may be granted permission to continue discarding) vessels will be obliged to land their full catch of quota species, including fish that would previously have been returned to the sea. These will be counted against quota and therefore unless the skipper is willing to see his quota burnt up by fish that cannot be sold on the human consumption market, there will a major incentive on fishermen to revisit ways of reducing unwanted catch. More selective gear is one option; using a skipper’s knowledge on where, when and how to fish is another.

The implication of all of this is that once the discard ban is in force for the most part it should not be necessary to define legal and illegal fishing gear through prescriptive legislation in order to achieve greater selectivity. A skipper should be able choose to land unmarketable low value fish if he wants to use up his quota in that way. The supposition is that he will not want to.

In any event, there should be a bonfire of the mass of prescriptive technical conservation rules which will no longer be relevant or helpful.

More than one way to skin a cat

With a few exceptions, such as maintaining the ban on using explosives to catch fish, it should not be necessary under the landings obligation to prescribe any technical conservation rules in legislation. The focus will shift onto the total catch of regulated species, including what would have previously been discarded for whatever reason (no quota, low market value etc.) Each individual skipper should be able to adapt his gear to obtain the results he wants.

The 50% Project, in which South West beam trawlers were encouraged to find ways to reduce their discards, was a particularly interesting exercise not least because of the different ways the individual skippers adapted their gear to meet the objective. The shift from prescriptive micro-management through remote and generally blunt legislation, to decisions made by each vessel operator about what fishing gear to use, ought to be one of the positive aspects of the landings obligation. Much work is needed before it comes into force to prepare, through tests and trials to provide skippers with as many options as possible to meet the new circumstances that will apply from 1st January 2016. It is especially important that lessons learnt are shared throughout the industry so that skippers are not forced to reinvent the wheel to meet the new circumstances.

Courage of their Convictions

One of the important outstanding questions remaining is whether the European institutions will have the courage of their own convictions. Having decided that European fisheries, despite the steady progress already made in reducing discards, needed a landings obligation, will they sanction the removal of all rules which hamper skippers in adapting to the new regime? The so-called Omnibus Regulation is only a first step in sweeping away all existing CFP rules inconsistent with the landings obligation. Time will tell. We expect a proposal new framework Technical Conservation Regulation will appear in the spring of 2015. That proposal will give us a good idea of whether skippers will be given full scope to choose their own gear, or whether a residual belt and braces approach will apply, with the dual pressures on skippers of meeting the requirements of the landing obligation as well as observing prescriptive technical rules. Our view is that the new Technical Conservation Regulation should contain the absolute minimum of rules and if measures are required to plug any holes that may arise, this should be done at the regional seas rather than the EU level. To be blunt, experience suggests that as a rule of thumb there is a better prospect of getting technical measures right the further away from Brussels the decision can be made.

Things to look out for will be retention or repeal of the one-net-rule, how catch composition rules are finally dealt with, mesh size rules, the effective fall of the mackerel box and where minimum conservation reference sizes are set.

NFFO

Right up to the 1 st of January 2016, and then beyond, the Federation will be active in shaping the implementing rules to minimise the disruption and maximise the positives in the landings obligation. One of the most important of the latter will be the potential for an historic shift away from prescriptive micro-management in the area of technical conservation.