After last week’s round of negotiations, Michel Barnier singled out fisheries as one of…
Preparations Ramp Up for the December Council
A final meeting with senior Defra officials, before government and industry delegations head for Brussels for the Council of Ministers, was held in London this week. The Council which will set total allowable catches and quotas for 2020, will be held on 16th and 17th December 2019. The NFFO has been working with fisheries scientists and administrators throughout the year but naturally, the engagement intensifies as the critical decisions approach.
Taking an overview, the biggest problems ahead are in mixed fisheries where the EU’s legal obligation to manage all stocks at MSY by 2020, is in conflict with the landing obligation.
The Commission is taking a particularly aggressive approach this year. This may be because of the arbitrary 2020 deadline adopted in 2013 and the provisions of the multi-annual plans. It may be to enhance its conservation credentials on paper. Or it may be to avoid a legal challenge by some of the more litigation minded environmental NGOs. In any event, there is a single-minded focus on how the decisions ahead look, rather than the consequences of what they will mean when put into practice.
The Commission’s proposals pose serious difficulties for parts of the fishing industry and also for the member state authorities who face the challenge of putting contradictory measures into practice. That is the fracture line for the negotiations ahead next week.
The danger of the Commission’s confrontational, coercive approach, lies in its focus on destination, rather than implementation. One of the important lessons that we have learnt from previous recovery plans is that moving in the right direction is much more effective in rebuilding stocks than obsessing about objectives. Arcane debates about how to define maximum sustainable yield is a sure-fire way to avoid developing the demonstrably effective step-by-step approaches to high yield fisheries.
A big bang approach may look good on paper, but it is only if the measures (including TAC levels) are workable and make sense at vessel level, that real progress can be made.
The landing obligation and the challenges associated with applying it in mixed fisheries is well known – as now is the problem of chokes. The problems facing cod in all sea areas under the CFP, serves to amplify those choke risks, setting up an undesirable tension between achieving high levels of compliance with the economic viability of the fleets concerned.
The difficulties this year are enhanced by the number of stocks in which low recruitment features is also a problem, presumably mainly as a result of ecosystem changes. The converse, recruitment spikes in North Sea and the Celtic Sea haddock stocks, paradoxically increases the choke risk.
Celtic Sea: In the Celtic Sea, detailed discussions have been held throughout the year on how to provide added protection for cod, without jeopardising the fishing opportunities which comprise the rest (99%) of the catch. Under the Commission’s proposals and after various deductions for pool arrangements and Hague Preference, the UK’s relative stability share of Celtic Sea cod would be 8 tonnes. It does not require a vast intellect to appreciate that this risible number is unworkable. The UK, and other affected member states, will argue for a TAC consistent with unavoidable bycatch, supplemented by ancillary support measures which minimise cod bycatches.
The Irish Sea presents its own challenges for cod and whiting posing a potential choke to the vitally important nephrops fishery.
Skates and Rays: Securing reasonable quotas for skates and rays is an NFFO priority. Providing protection for the weaker species groups whilst maximising fishing opportunities on the groups like thornback, which are in robust health, is a challenge but also a necessity.
Seabass: Similarly, maintaining progress in building the bass stock, whilst allowing the trawlers to keep a higher proportion of seabass which they catch as an unavoidable bycatch is also high on the NFFO list.
EU/Norway: EU/Norway talks will resume later this week after the failure to agree during the second round in Bergen. What will transpire is uncertain. The EU head of delegation will require a new mandate to move away from the proposed 61% cut in TAC for North Sea cod, which is opposed by Norway, almost all the member states and the whole North Sea fishing industry. The Commission may wish to take soundings from the Council, although it is already clear that the member states affected want the Commission to move from its isolated position. A fourth round of EU/Norway talks running into the New Year is possible.
One slightly strange dimension of the Council in 2019, is that we don’t know who will be leading the UK delegation, as the results of the general election will only be know on Friday, with delegations travelling to Brussels on Sunday, for the start of the Council on Monday. George Eustice will remain UK Fisheries Minister until he is replaced. There is little profit in speculating about the different post-election scenarios – suffice to say that officials are preparing policy options to meet various eventualities.
Depending on how the general election on Thursday turns out, this could be the last Council in which the UK participates as a member state.
Harvesting fish stocks in a way that maximise the economic and social benefits without prejudicing future fishing opportunities, requires judgement and balance. Trade-offs are required between maintaining fleets and fishing communities and building stocks towards the MSY objective. It is when MSY stops being a useful rule of thumb and becomes an article of dogma that difficulties begin. It has been apparent since 2013, when the MSY timetable was adopted as a mandatory requirement, that ultimately there would be a reckoning with reality. 2020 is around the corner and the Council of Ministers next week will at least in part be a showdown between pragmatism and dogma.
This is dangerous. We know what works to rebuild stocks. It is a responsive and adaptive approach that reduces fishing pressure but provides fishing businesses with a way to remain viable as well-designed, tailored, measures take effect. All the signs are that at this Council the Commission stand prepared to ignore these hard-learned lessons.
A full NFFO team will travel to Brussels for the Council, with representatives from the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea, Channel, North Sea and External water fisheries.