Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy

23rd November 2011 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Submission Prepared by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in response to Commission Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council on the Common Fisheries Policy


For well over a decade the NFFO and likeminded bodies have argued that the core problem with the Common Fisheries Policy, and the reason that so many of its policy initiatives have delivered much less than expected, is that it has been dominated by an over-centralised command-and-control system. A centralised CFP has simply not had the capacity to manage numerous highly diverse and complex fisheries, spread over 40 degrees of latitude. Blanket measures, a one-size-fits –all approach, and an inability to tailor measures to local circumstances and respond quickly when measures are patently failing, has been the hallmark of the current regime.

Our criticisms, initially thought extreme, have subsequently moved centre-stage and the Commission’s Green Paper on the Reform of the CFP essentially makes similar points: to be effective in achieving its objectives, it is necessary to radically decentralise decision-making within the CFP and to transfer responsibilities away from the centre to regional seas level and beyond that to the fishing industry itself; this would take place within an overarching system of safeguards and guarantees.

For reasons apparently largely to do with legal constraints in the Treaties, it is not immediately obvious how the Commission’s proposal will achieve this ambition. There is aspiration but very little detail on how a regionalised and decentralised CFP would function. Perhaps this is inevitable when it appears that the flesh of a regional approach will have to be put on the bones by the member states acting cooperatively at a regional seas level rather than as members of a regional management body with a closely defined role. Nevertheless, we have strong fears that the opportunity to make a decisive break with the past will be lost as the proposal confronts the co-decision process. Some member states fear that regionalisation will simply result in a further layer of bureaucracy and cost; the European Parliament, having been recently given new powers is being asked almost immediately to delegate some of them; and there are valid fears about granting the Commission additional delegated powers.
Against this complex background, as the proposals move forward to the co-legislators for decision with all the compromises involved in that process, we would simply wish to ensure that all parties understand the core importance of achieving a meaningful decentralisation of the CFP.

In particular, it is important to understand that failure to decentralise will lead to a decade of paralysis, given the inevitably slower process of decision-making under co-decision.


We recognise that achieving a transfer of decision-making responsibilities to the regional seas level will have to take account of a number of legal and political realities, including:

  • The provisions in Lisbon Treaty for delegated responsibilities, including the Commission’s right of initiative and co-decision making with the European Parliament
  • The fact that there is no scope within the Treaties for the establishment of management bodies with legislative powers at regional seas level
  • That there is scope (within the Treaties) for the member states to cooperate administratively at the regional seas level - this would mean engaging closely with the regional advisory councils and fisheries scientists in the development of multi-annual management plans (MAPs);
  • MAPs developed in this way, with the backing of the relevant member states and RACs, grounded in the best available science, would go forward for adoption through three possible legal routes (described below)
  • MAPs would cover all the main elements required for effective management within a regionalised CFP
  • The development of a coherent overarching system of principles and standards agreed by the co-legislators would provide a framework for delegated responsibilities at regional level.

It seems to us that even within the given legal constraints, member states cooperating with RACs at the regional sea basin level to prepare comprehensive multi-annual management plans could amount to de-facto regional management through one of three alternative routes:

  • Agreed regional MAPs would be submitted to the Commission as recommendations by the relevant member states for adoption (perhaps after discussion and amendment) as a formal proposal for co-decision-making; clearly, given the time that this process would take, much detail would have to be decided through subsequent implementing legislation; ideally this would take place in some kind of fast track process
  • The Commission, using delegated powers, could have authority to approve specified detailed content through some variant of comitology, thus avoiding the cumbersome co-decision process for detailed provisions
  • In some circumstances it may be possible/ desirable for cooperating member states to give legal force to specific measures through their own national measures.

All of this is new, potentially messy, in some ways counter-intuitive not without potential pitfalls. Nevertheless, we reaffirm our opinion that it is vital for the co-legislators to navigate their way through the legal constraints to find a political compromise that will deliver an effective form of regional management. There is a responsibility on all of the parties – Commission, European Parliament and member states to find a way forward. To fail will be to condemn European fisheries to a further decade within a dysfunctional system.

We would therefore express, in the strongest possible terms, our wish to see progress to a decentralised Common Fisheries Policy, of which regionalisation is the first logical step, and would urge the co-legislators to work together to achieve this aim.

Delegated Responsibilities

Given the complexities and uncertainties of applying a regional approach to the CFP, it is all the more important to open alternative ways of decentralising and simplifying the current micro-management system. We and some of the RACs have advocated expanding the use of delegated authority through which blocks of responsibility are transferred to fishing industry organisations, such as producer organisations, within a system of approvals and audits. This has been called reversing the burden of proof in fisheries.

The Commission’s proposals on the future of the common organisation of the market makes reference to an enhanced role for producer organisations - but is strikingly devoid of detail on what this might mean, beyond an oblique reference to production and marketing plans. Yet, successful examples of delegated management in Australia and Canada, suggest that this is a potentially fruitful route to simplification, decentralisation, and a high degree of industry participation in management. We believe that this aspect of decentralisation should be afforded a much higher level of priority.

Transferable Fishing Concessions

The Commission has proposed a mandatory system of transferable fishing concessions (TFCs) to be operated by member states for all vessels over 12 metres, along with all vessels below 12 metres which use mobile gear. Applying transferable fishing concessions to passive gear vessels below 12 meters would be at the discretion of the member state. TFCs would amount to a system of use-rights with notice of recall of 1 5 years. Such a system would work explicitly within the principle of relative stability; in other words quota transfers between member states would require approval of those member states.

The UK is one of those member states which have already progressed quite far towards a system of rights-based management, not dissimilar to the system described in the Commission Proposal. Other countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark have also moved successfully in a similar direction.
For the vessels to which it applies, most commentators would agree that the UK quota management system based on Fixed Quota Allocations has been successful in terms of:

  • Adjusting available fishing opportunities to capacity
  • Using UK quotas more efficiently
  • Encouraging a high degree of compliance.

It is those parts of the UK (fleet, principally the under-10 metre sector) that have not been part of the mainstream quota management system (and the associated decommissioning schemes that facilitated the adjustment) which now are subject to quota management problems.

Quota management is also the area of policy where delegated responsibilities have progressed furthest. The lesson was learned early in the UK that adapting quota arrangements to the requirements of specific fleets, operating in specific conditions, is not readily achieved through a centralised system. Given their pivotal position between the fleets and the regulatory system, producer organisations are best placed to judge whether annual individual vessel quotas, or some variant on the pool system with monthly (or similar) limits, is the most appropriate system for groups of vessels in particular circumstances.

This is where we have concerns about the Commission’s proposals. It is not in the concept of user-rights with a reasonable period of recall; our fear lies in that a system of controls at European level would undermine what has been achieved within the UK through the application of a blunt uniformity.

At present, the Commission’s locus, apart from general oversight, ends with setting TACs. It is not at all clear that dictating the detail of member states’ quota management arrangements is an area of Community competence. Quota management to date has been member states’ responsibility. EU rules in this sphere would therefore be a significant step backwards from decentralisation. In any event, the Commission’s enthusiasm for transferable fishing concessions rests largely on its perception that it will be a way of addressing overcapacity in those fisheries where this remains a problem. The danger is that in requiring a mandatory system of TFQs at European level, the very flexibility that has allowed a variety tailored quota management arrangements to flower in the member states (some involving complex hybrids of individual vessel and collective pool quotas) will be lost.

Against the prevailing orthodoxy that publically funded decommissioning schemes do not represent good value for money it is pertinent to reflect on to what extent scrapping subsidies established the preconditions for the successful TFC schemes in Denmark, Netherlands and the UK.

All of the above is not to argue that improvements can’t be made to our domestic quota arrangements. Currently discussions are under way on resolving the problems confronting some parts of the under-10 metre and it would also be wise to improve the transparency of our arrangements and to put in place safeguards against over-concentration of ownership. However, there is a big difference between dealing with these questions at member state level and conceding to blunt pan-European rules in this area.

Our priority therefore should be to ensure that the introduction of TFQs at a European level is not allowed to undermine the progress that has been made within the UK towards a flexible and functioning rights-based management system.

Small Scale Fisheries

Small scale fisheries are a vital component in European fisheries from a number of perspectives including economic, social, employment, and regional policy. We agree however with the Commission that there is no case for a differentiated regime so far as management measures are concerned, partly because this would undermine the coherence of conservation measures but principally because it is simply impossible to conceive a single definition of “small-scale”, “artisanal” or “inshore” that would be meaningful. There are times and places in which it will be useful to use these categories to sub-divide the fleet but this can only realistically be done at member-state or sub-member state level, where it is possible to take account of all relevant circumstances.

Multi-annual Management Plans

We consider that multi-annual management plans will be the principal vehicle for fisheries policy in the future. As MAPs move from a simple set of harvest control rules for single stocks, to plans based on broader, more comprehensive, multi-species models aligned with an ecosystem approach, incorporating the views of stakeholder groups, like the regional advisory councils, will be not only desirable but essential.

At least for demersal fisheries we foresee that within a regionalised CFP, RACs and member states within a regional seas area will cooperate and collaborate very closely in the development and application of MAPS. Strands of this type of cooperation, involving fisheries scientists from ICES and the national laboratories can already be seen in much of RACs’ current work. The addition of fisheries managers from the member states would complete the triumvirate necessary for effective regional management – stakeholders, fisheries managers and fisheries scientists.

Doubtless MAPS would be developed within a framework of principles and standards laid down at the European level by the co-legislators. We would make the important point that if we are to break with the failures of the current CFP, it is essential that anything that smacks of prescriptive micro-management must be removed from the European level. Not only from the perspective of a responsive system dealing rapidly with changing realities but to achieve the benefits of tailored, customised measures with a high degree of buy-in from the fishing industry, it is important that this point is understood.

Maximum Sustainable Yield

We share the Commission’s objective of achieving high yield fisheries on the stocks. We cannot however support the Commission’s proposal to sweep all the necessary caveats and safeguards aside when applying a theoretical concept such as maximum sustainable yield (which was, after all, developed with single stock fisheries in mind), especially when applied to multi-species fisheries. The architects of the WSSD Declaration in Johannesburg specified, for good reason, that MSY should be achieved for depleted stocks by 2015, where possible. Those words reflect a biological reality – that for a number of reasons, including predation patterns, it may not be possible to fish all stocks simultaneously at MSY. It is important for the credibility of the CFP to move to high yield fisheries in a progressive way without tying the policy into an approach that lacks scientific credibility and will create unnecessary rigidities and possibly unachievable objectives.


We have no difficulty in sharing the Commission’s ambition to reduce the large scale discarding that has wasted the resource, impeded the recovery of depleted stocks and damaged the reputation of the fishing industry. Indeed much progress has been made already, especially in the last two years. And over the last decade discards in the English fleet have been reduced by 50%.

The Commission has clearly in mind systems, such as those that apply in Norway and Iceland, when it proposes a timetable for a mandatory requirement for vessels to land all the fish they catch of named species. Whatever lessons that may be learned from these examples, it is also true that conditions in Norway and Iceland are not the same as exist in our fisheries. This why a stepwise, fishery-by-fishery approach is required, taking fully into account the range of drivers (regulatory, technical, economic, market failure, perverse incentives) for discards. Even in systems such as that as operated in Norway, where ostensibly there is a discard ban, care has been taken to provide sufficient flexibility to ensure that the practicalities of each fishery are fully taken into account.

Where discards have increased in recent years, it has almost invariably been the result of compliance with CFP regulations, including TAC decisions, recovery and management plans and catch composition rules within the technical conservation regulations. Logic therefore dictates that a precondition for an obligation to land all catches will be the elimination of this type of regulatory discards. Judging by the lack of progress in this direction in the Commission’s proposals for TACs and quotas in 2012, this will not be an easy or straightforward task.


It is universally acknowledged that the regional advisory councils have exceeded expectations placed upon them at the last reform of the CFP. By virtue of their composition and pivotal position between the regulatory system and specific fisheries RACs (or ACs as we must now learn to call them) are uniquely placed to bring insight and experience to management decisions. RACs have been constrained in the role that they play by the limited resources that are available to them and it is hoped that the new financial settlement for fisheries from 2013 will provide a sound basis for the development of RAC advice. Notwithstanding the positive role played by RACs to date, it is true to say that the current structure of centralised decision-making within the CFP has acted as a bottleneck that has led to many pieces of RAC advice being ignored or placed in a queue for action. The Commission has been incapable of dealing with the sheer quantity of the advice that is prepared and submitted. This underlines the need for a stronger regional dimension to policy formulation and development and RACs have a major potential role to play in engaging with member state authorities and fisheries scientists at the regional seas level to shape and agree policy recommendations. MAPs will clearly be the vehicle for this work.


Our fear is that the vision advanced by the Commission in its Green Paper on CFP reform of a regionalised and decentralised CFP, with a significant transfer of responsibility from the centre to the regions and beyond, will not be realised. Nevertheless, it is precisely this approach that is required if we are to break free of a seriously dysfunctional command and control system that has impeded movement towards a more rational and effective management system.

The first priority of this reform should therefore be to give legislative effect to this vision. Achieving this shift would in itself represent a huge step towards achieving our other goals of moving towards a responsive system that delivers high yield, low discards, reasonably stable, fisheries, within an ecosystem approach.