Reform Process Adrift whilst Fault Lines Appear on Technical Measures

23rd June 2010 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

CFP reform seems to be adrift after the lead Commission official on the reform process, Spaniard Cesar Deben, was abruptly removed from post by new fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki.

At the same time, the last consultative meeting held by the Commission, before it goes into internal deliberations, has revealed contrasting approaches to how technical conservation should be applied in the new CFP.

The Commission’s failure last year, to push through a half-digested replacement to the complex and incomprehensible present technical conservation regulation, to beat the Lisbon Treaty and co-decision-making with the European Parliament, has meant that technical measures will now be dealt with as part of the reform.

It is generally agreed that the top-down, one-size-fits-all, approach enshrined in the present rules (EC Reg 858/98) has got in the way of improving selectivity in EU fisheries. The lack of coherence with other EU regulations, such as the cod recovery plans, has also undermined the technical rules. ICES recently pronounced that despite increasing the minimum mesh size to 120mm, the average mesh size being used in the North Sea had fallen, as vessels have been forced from the whitefish sector to the nephrops sector where a smaller mesh is generally in use.

Industry representatives at the meeting broadly supported the view that technical measures, applied in the right way, have a major role to play in a reformed CFP. Effective technical measures means that fish when they have had a chance to mature, increasing the reservoir of adults, reducing dependence on incoming year classes and increasing stability in the fishery. However, the promise of improved selectivity has never been fully realised despite technical advances such as square mesh panels. The main reason for this failure lies in the blunt way in which the EU has applied technical rules. Over-general regulations have generated demands for derogations by member states and the measures, where they imply a significant loss of marketable fish have often been circumvented one way or another. As well as creating a range of perverse incentives the current rules have also been remarkably successful in generating discards.

There was support in the meeting for the NFFO’s arguments that a radical decentralisation of technical measures was required to replace blunt top-down rules. Whilst most participants spoke in favour of technical decisions rules being determined at regional level, there were widely differing views on taking the next step, to delegated self-regulation by the fishing industry itself. Industry representatives spoke in favour of exploring this approach as an option for groups of fishermen who have the capability and wish to prepare sustainable fishing plans, as an alternative to micro-management. But a number of member state government representatives thought that this was a step too far – in one case pointing to the consequences of self-regulation in the financial sector. Leaving aside the offensive parallel with smug, effete, irresponsible, over-rewarded and myopic bankers, which most fishermen will not appreciate, a form of delegated self-management seems to work well in some of the Australian fisheries. A move from micro-management to a system of prior approval and audit also offers a way to reduce the obscene cost of managing fisheries, pointed to in the EU Court of Auditor’s report. In some member states these exceed the revenue generated by the industry.

It remains to be seen if the Commission provides scope for a tentative move in this direction through some permissive clause in the new regulations. In the same way that the NFFO and SFFs’ advocacy of a regional approach a decade ago has now become mainstream, it may be that delegated self- regulation may be too radical for most member state authorities who still think that desk-bound bureaucrats know best how to rig fishing gear. Another fear is that having recently been granted powers of co-decision-making in fisheries, some in the European Parliament will be reluctant to surrender any part of those powers, even though delegation downwards on technical issues is desperately needed.

With a new Commissioner, new Director General, and new head of the reform process, it may take a little time for the Commission to regroup and decide its central policy lines. The public statements of the new Commissioner has made clear that the previous appetite for international ITQs has been moderated to support for some system of rights based management in the member-states. She has however voiced a naive support for effort control as a panacea for discards that ignores the serious flaws of restrictions on time at sea as a management tool and understates the progress that can be made under a system of TACs and Quotas – if the right conditions are created.

The Federation will be raising these points directly with the Commissioner at a forthcoming meeting in Strasbourg organised by British MEPs.