Scientific advice and ministers’ responsibility to manage fisheries

19th October 2015 in Fisheries Science, TACs and Quotas

Jockeying for position in the run up to decisions on quotas for 2016 has already begun. The Council of Ministers is sometimes criticised for departing from the scientific recommendations on quotas. It is worth examining this claim because it’s frequently used to imply that ministers, under pressure from a powerful fishing lobby, duck their environmental responsibilities and are therefore directly responsible for stock depletion.

Scientific advice and ministers’ responsibility to manage fisheries

Taking a broad view, if it is true that the Commission and the Council of Ministers routinely set quotas that are unsustainable, it is a little difficult to explain how our fisheries are doing so well. At the annual State of the Stocks meeting, in Brussels, the Chairman of the ICES Advisory Committee, provided the definitive overview:

"Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen a general decline in fishing mortality in the Northeast Atlantic* and the Baltic Sea. The stocks have reacted positively to the reduced exploitation and we're observing growing trends in stock sizes for most of the commercially important stocks. For the majority of stocks, it has been observed that fishing mortality has decreased to a level consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – meaning levels that are not only sustainable but will also deliver high long term yields.” (Our emphasis)

Eskild Kirkegaard,
Chair of the Advisory Committee,
International Council for Exploration of the Seas

This is an exceptionally important statement, not just because it was made by the authoritative international body with responsibility for assessing our fish stocks, but because it signals quite unambiguously that, as an industry, we are already on track to deliver high sustainable yields (maximum sustainable yield, in the jargon). There are of course individual stocks that buck these general trends and it is important to address the reasons for this. But there is no mistaking the signal coming from the scientific advice: after many years of difficulties and sacrifice, we are harvesting our stocks at a sustainable level that will deliver high quality food to the table in the long term. That is really something to celebrate.

Ministers’ Responsibilities

But turning to why quotas are sometimes set by ministers at levels different from the scientific recommendations: Is this irresponsibility, or are there justifiable reasons for this departure?

Essentially there are three main reasons why the quotas adopted might not align with the scientific advice:

The first relates to the fact that the scientific advice is for the most part provided on a single species basis. However, many species are caught in mixed fisheries which capture a range of species in the same gear. Cod, haddock and whiting for example are often caught together, although the ratios between the species can vary considerably from trip to trip, and even haul to haul. This means that a judgement must be made by fisheries managers on where to set the individual species quotas to secure the optimum outcome across all of the species caught. Sometimes this will mean setting an individual quota higher than would be the case on a single species basis; but the converse can be true: where individual quotas are set quotas are set lower than the single stock advice in order to reduce pressure on another species in the group.

Another reason why ministers might wish to set quotas higher than the single stock advice is for socio-economic reasons. Often this is related to timing. Rebuilding a biomass over two years rather than one year can make a huge difference for the livelihoods of the fishermen dependent on that stock but will mean that the same result is achieved over a slightly longer timeframe. Eastern Channel sole is a good example of this at the moment. ICES are obliged to provide their quota advice in relation to achieving maximum sustainable yield within the following year. The choice for managers therefore is a drastic reduction in quota in one year, or a more modest reduction spread over a slightly longer period. The scientific projections suggest that both options will deliver the biomass to maximum sustainable yield within the legally set timeframe (2020); but the mix of small-scale fleets and larger vessels dependent on this stock are more likely to maintain their viability under the second option. So ministers might decide to depart from the short-term advice secure in the knowledge that over the slightly longer term, the biomass targets will be reached.

Finally, given the public focus on discards in recent years, it is not unnatural that ministers will want to take into account when setting quotas whether their decisions will increase or reduce discards. The quota for North Sea cod has been set towards the upper end of the scientific catch options in recent years exactly in order to avoid wasting the resource by generating discards in mixed fisheries. The biomass has continued to build steadily.

All of this means that although quotas are fundamentally set in relation to the individual stock scientific advice, fisheries managers (in this case the Commission, the Council of Ministers and where relevant Norway) have a management responsibility that is broader than blindly following the unrefined scientific recommendations. In this ministers are acting to meet the legal requirements of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy:“The CFP shall ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long-term and are managed in a way that is consistent with the objectives of achieving economic, social and employment benefits, and of contributing to the availability of food supplies. “ Article 2:1 of the CFP Basic Regulation EU/1380/13

The challenge of managing mixed fisheries

There is no doubt that managing fisheries which exploit more than a single species presents a range of extra challenges. In any given year the abundance of individual species within a mixed fishery assemblage might be going in divergent directions. It is also true that management decisions on quotas are also going to be more demanding in future. Fisheries managers will be legally required both to set quotas consistent with achieving maximum sustainable yield, and at the same time facilitate the progressive introduction of a landings obligation. Finding some way to bring coherence to setting individual quotas in a mixed fishery under these conditions is not for the faint hearted.

ICES has developed the concept of fishing mortality ranges to address this situation. Maximum sustainable yield is not necessarily best understood as a single point at the peak of the yield curve but an area at the top of the curve. Interpreting MSY in this way provides fisheries managers with a degree of flexibility to balance the quotas set for individual species caught within a mixed fishery. Coherence between TACs will be particularly important in the context of the landings obligation because vessels will no longer be permitted to discard a species for which the quota is exhausted.

F ranges are likely to be an important tool in the future but it is highly unlikely that they will on their own be able to completely resolve the problem of chokes under the landings obligation. Some NGOs have advocated the lowest common denominator solution: They argue that fishing should stop when the first quota in a mixed fishery is exhausted. Given that in many mixed fisheries there are many small bycatch quotas in place that could prevent fishing vessels, nations or the whole EU, from catching its main economic quotas, this would represent the Armageddon option. It would also be contrary to Article 2 of the CFP Regulation, as discussed above.

It is clear that if we want socially and economically, as well as an environmentally, sustainable fisheries, something is going to have to give. One idea would be to group minor species under a single quota heading, such as is already done in the Norwegian sector under ‘Norway others’. Care would have to be taken to prevent unacceptable over-exploitation of any individual species within the group and careful monitoring would be required. But this would be a way of avoiding chokes whilst still managing the exploitation rate of the stocks concerned. Another, more radical, suggestion would be to remove TAC status from a number of stocks that are not targeted as such but taken as bycatch. Again, monitoring the conservation status of these stocks and putting in place additional measures where necessary would be a necessary corollary of removing TAC status.

Finally, as fishing pressure has been progressively reduced, interspecies predation has increased in overall significance and will increasingly have to be taken into account in the future. In the North Sea this kind of natural mortality is already more significant that fishing mortality. All this highlights some of the issues currently being debated on how to best manage mixed fisheries in the future. None of this is easy. There is no silver bullet that removes the complexity inherent in managing mixed fisheries. We have some of the most complex fisheries in the world: multi-species, multi-gear and multi-jurisdiction.

NGO agenda

The task, however, is being made more difficult by a top-down agenda pursued by the NGO community. A steady determination to use Europe’s co-decision process to impose a rigid legal framework on the management of mixed fisheries has become evident. This is currently generating a great deal of heat in relation to the Baltic multi-annual management plan. This is important to us because the Baltic plan will be followed shortly after by proposals for North Sea and Western Waters mixed fishery plans. The NGOs want:

  • To make biomass targets mandatory. However the CFP already requires the exploitation rate to be set at a level that provides a good probability that a low fishing mortality rate will deliver high biomass. The concept of biomass MSY is regarded as scientific illiteracy by mainstream fisheries scientists because there are so many other factors at work in the marine environment that it is not possible to guarantee that biomass targets would be achieved, even if fishing was reduced to zero
  • To oblige ministers to use the lowest common denominator in setting TACs (in other words under-exploiting the main economic species in order to reduce exploitation on a minor bycatch species). If taken literally and put into practice this would have catastrophic social and economic consequences for fleets and ports. It would also be contrary to Article 2 of the CFP basic Regulation which explicitly requires the Commission and ministers to secure employment, economic and social benefits of sustainable exploitation of fish stocks.
  • To remove some of the flexibility in setting quotas in relation to F ranges suggested by ICES: This would of course undermine the point of using ranges in the first place
  • More broadly, to constrain the jurisdiction of ministers to set TACs at an appropriate level taking all the factors mentioned above into account. (this issue has been referred to the European Court which will be asked to interpret the meaning of the Lisbon Treaty on this issue)

Essentially these tactics, if successful, would reduce the scope for the kind of adaptive, pragmatic but scientifically informed, management of mixed fisheries that is required and replace it by an inflexible legal framework. This is all very unhelpful and dangerous not least because of the influence the NGOs have within the European Parliament.

Weird timing

It is more than a little bizarre that this battle has emerged now, at a time after all the hard work has been done and 80% (by tonnage) of our stocks are already at MSY. Leaving aside the ongoing dispute over who has jurisdiction to set quotas, the debate about MSY is now focused on how to harvest the 5% or 10% at the top of the yield curve. This happy situation contrasts with the extreme rhetoric being used in the debate that would suggest that what is at stake is nothing less than the exposure of European fisheries to crass over-exploitation, stock depletion and potential collapse. But as we have seen above no less an authority than ICES has already explained that because of the measures already taken, we have already travelled the journey, not just to sustainable fishing, but to a position where we can deliver high long-term yields.

Just why the NGOs and their allies in the European Parliament have chosen to take this adversarial and legalistic approach, rather than celebrate the progress we have made, is another question which we will analyse elsewhere; but in an already complex area their public position is, to say the least, unhelpful.

*Includes the North Sea