Progressing Shellfish Policy

11th September 2012 in Shellfish, Shellfish

A delegation of NFFO shellfish interests met recently with senior Defra officials to discuss the apparent logjam on shellfish policy.

Exactly a year has passed since the Federation submitted its shellfish policy paper to Defra and apart some perfunctory correspondence which had been tangential to the central problems facing the shellfish sector, or the NFFO’s proposals for dealing with them, progress has amounted to zero.

The purpose of the meeting in London was to discuss the reasons for the lack of progress and if possible to agree a way forward.

Officials were quite candid in their explanations for the lack of forward momentum. The principal reasons given were:

  • The present Government’s moratorium on any new regulation that could be understood as adding to the burden of legislation on business and in particular the micro-businesses (which account for 98% of the businesses in the fishing industry). The Government’s moratorium on new regulations will remain in force at least until 2014.
  • The restructuring of the sustainable fisheries division in response to civil service cuts, which had meant more immediate issues such as scallop effort had taken precedence over longer-term strategy on crab and lobster policy
  • Defra’s focus on introducing a system of rights-based management for both whitefish and shellfish sectors which had preoccupied officials and been the subject of a major consultation last summer.

NFFO Approach

The Federation delegation explained that whilst the NFFO had been at the forefront of those challenging the over-centralised micro-management which had afflicted the Common Fisheries Policy and much domestic fisheries policy over the last 20 years, effective resource management did require a degree of public intervention. Present Government policy was in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Federation policy paper:

  • Was based on the idea of a careful and incremental approach to shellfish policy, recognising that there had been mistakes made in managing whitefish resources that should be avoided at all costs
  • Had been carefully calibrated to balance the diverse interests in the shellfish sector
  • Suggested a way of breaking the policy logjam which had blocked forward momentum in shellfish for over a decade: a move away from big bang policies that rarely reached take off speed was advocated
  • Suggested ways of addressing the immediate issue of latent capacity and the threat this poses to the high-volume sector of the brown crab sector
  • Recognised the need for the smaller end of the shellfish sector to retain flexibility to redirect target species
  • Stressed the need for a strong regional dimension to shellfish policy within the inshore zone
  • Supported a framework that would encourage industry voluntary initiatives where these were feasible

Defra Comments

Officials explained that during the past year its focus had been on strengthening the information and evidence on which robust policy could be based. Cefas would shortly produce formal stock assessments for shellfish of a comparable quality to those produced under the ICES system. It had also tentatively discussed a form of rights-based management with some industry groups, so far without much in terms of concrete outcomes.

Overcapacity and Light Touch Regulation

It is a general truth in fisheries management that if there is a reasonable balance between the size of the fishing fleet and the available resources, then much less in the way of prescriptive micromanagement is required. A decisive government intervention can thus pave the way for a greater degree of self-regulation and light touch regulation. Furthermore, carefully applied measures taken in good time would avoid the need for more draconian steps later on after things have gone wrong. These were important lessons for the shellfish sector learned from the experience of the whitefish sector. This had been the thinking behind the Federation’s paper and was therefore consistent with the general thrust of Government policy.

The Federation noted that the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive would carry implications for the management of shellfisheries, even if the sector managed to steer clear of the EU TACs and quotas system. For these reasons it was both prudent and sensible to take early steps to safeguard the sector rather than waiting for problems to arise when the remedial medicine would be much harder to swallow.

Agreement

After extensive discussion of the issues it was agreed that:

  • Defra would prepare a point-by-point response to the Federation’s policy paper as the basis for discussion on the way forward
  • The Federation would reflect on the emergence of a class of high catching vessels in the 10-15 metre category which suggested that the inshore/offshore (or high volume/small scale) divisions were not as clear cut as previously understood
  • Despite voicing some scepticism the Federation agreed to reflect on whether the introduction of a Minimum Landing Size for crab and lobster could be introduced by the industry on a voluntary basis. Defra indicated that it would assist the Federation to explore such an approach
  • A dedicated Defra working group on shellfish would be established in parallel to the Industry Working Group on domestic quota reform to steer a way forward; the composition would balance workable numbers with the need to reflect the shellfish sectors diversity
  • The NFFO would take the first opportunity to discuss with the Minister the appropriate balance between public policy intervention and a light touch regulatory regime.