Scientific Advice for TACs and Quotas in 2010

30th July 2009 in Celtic Sea, Channel, Fisheries Science, Irish Sea, North Sea, TACs and Quotas, West of Scotland

The NFFO played a full role in a major meeting organised recently by the European Commission to hear the annual scientific advice on the stocks and to prepare for the Commission’s proposals for next year’s TACs and quotas.

The annual meeting was for the first time attended by MEPs and members of the fishing press, in preparation for the changes in the pipeline for this autumn, if as expected, Ireland votes to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

There is no doubting the calibre of many of the Commission officials struggling to put together a proposal on the basis of often weak scientific advice and in light of the contrasting pressures from the industry and the environmental lobby; but the overwhelming impression was of a system that often had no answers to many of the issues raised by the industry and was looking toward CFP reform for salvation.

Scientific Advice

The most telling, and chilling, aspect of this year’s scientific advice was the degree to which the label “unknown” was attached to describe the status of various stocks. This does not mean that nothing is known but that ICES considers the data that it does hold is inadequate to arrive at a scientific conclusion. 59% of the stocks fall into this category. This is not good for the industry because in these circumstances the Commission applies a precautionary approach in its proposals, meaning lower TACs than would otherwise have been the case.

Despite this, ICES was clear in dispelling the myth that the CFP is overseeing some kind of ongoing general collapse in European fish stocks and made some important general points:

  • Scientists cannot make valid general statements about the state of demersal fish stocks in European waters because there is too much variation from fishery to fishery and region to region
  • We are not in the best of worlds in terms of the health of the stocks but neither are we in the worst of worlds: Both encouraging and discouraging trends can be discerned
  • Although there are a few problem stocks, and some areas of clear improvement, broadly speaking most stocks are stable

Throughout the scientific presentation it was clear that the ICES benchmark meetings, the recent innovation through which individual stocks are subject to intense scientific scrutiny to determine whether the assessments could be improved, and which were welcomed by the Federation and others, can be a destabilising factor. This year’s advice on nephrops and Celtic Sea cod are two cases in point. Changes in the scientific perception of these stocks (rather than changes to the status of the stocks themselves) have resulted in adverse advice that could have a serious impact of TAC recommendations this year. Clearly scientists must take into account all relevant factors but these abrupt changes in the perception of a stock have consequences for the industry unless they are carefully mediated by fisheries managers.

Issues

Industry representatives from the RACs, Europeche and other European organisations interrogated the science and raised issued about the Commission’s approach as outlined in its Communication on Fishing Opportunities in 2010.

Celtic Sea Cod: The increased uncertainty about the status of the cod stock arising from the benchmark process was highlighted by industry representatives. It was emphasised that this carries implications for well designed management measures that would balance industry viability with stock rebuilding. The primary danger is that the Commission uses this as an opportunity to roll the Celtic Sea into the Cod Recovery plan or similar effort based measures which would be extremely disruptive to the “ultra-mixed” fisheries that operate in this area.

Irish Sea Cod: Cod recovery measures were introduced earlier in the Irish Sea that other sea areas (1999), they have been deeper and had had greater socio-economic impact but in the final analysis have delivered least response. ICES was asked to explain this paradox and whether other factors such as environmental shifts or changes in natural mortality were relevant factors. Other than noting that even after fishing mortality has been reduced, stocks can take a long time to rebound, the scientists had no answers. This along with the uncertainties in the process for establishing a Nephrops TAC for Area VII, makes for a difficult set of negotiations at the December Council.

North Sea Cod: The rigidity of the cod recovery plan (automatic effort reductions and a 20% ceiling on TAC increases in the face of a rapidly rebuilding stock) will, according to ICES, lead to high levels of discarding in 2010, undermining the progress that has been made in reducing the level of fishing mortality. This was emphasised in a number of interventions but the Commission sent out a very strong signal that it would not entertain reopening a recovery plan that had been agreed by fisheries ministers less than 6 months ago. The scene is therefore set for another frustrating autumn, when plainly wrongheaded measures that undermine a more effective approach based of industry led incentivised cod avoidance measures, are forced through in the face of resistance from the RACS, the industry and a substantial body of scientific opinion.

Nephrops: The lack of stability in the scientific perception of the nephrops stocks (see above) contrasts with the stability of most nephrops populations. The issue relates to the use of TV surveys to estimate the number of nephrops burrows and the method for extrapolating from this data to a full population. The industry emphasised that it was managers’ responsibility to even out the abrupt changes in the assessment results before translating them into TAC proposals.

North Sea Whiting: The Federation emphasised that if the Commission’s stated approach and the customary pattern with EU Norway are followed this autumn, the effect of reducing the TAC (by 15%) could be reliably predicted to translate to a 15% increase in discards. Unless changes to this process are made, the intense level of discarding already seen this year on the west side of the North Sea will increase, undermining the recovery of the stock. A number of suggestions for management flexibility were suggested to the Commission, including an ‘of which’ quota and supportive quota transfers from those countries that habitually underutilise their whiting quota.Reform

Although the focus of the meeting was the TACs and quotas for 2010, the Commission in a series of concluding remarks was refreshingly frank about its position. Instead of the defensive stance to any criticism, that has been the hallmark of the Commission’s past positions, there was now recognition that the industry, member states and Commission are actors in a dysfunctional system, seriously in need of reform. The Commission stated:

  • “Developing mechanisms sophisticated enough to deal with the issues raised by mixed fisheries is one of the most significant challenges facing the CFP”
  • “The present system is hampered by operating at the lowest common denominator of 26 member states”
  • “We are not capable of responding from Brussels to meet the needs of different fisheries”
  • “A more regionalised approach is necessary to achieve effective management”

Lisbon

The implications of the Lisbon Treaty are much upon the Commission’s mind:

  • “We will have to improvise less in the run up to the December Council and will have to reflect a lot more when proposing measures
  • “The framework regulations will have to be simple and we will have to rely on comitology* to update measures”
  • “We are desperate to get the Technical Conservation Regulation and the Control Regulation accepted by the Council of Ministers in October before co-decision making takes hold.

Conclusion

This was a meeting that sent very mixed messages. The same rigidity and absence on a focus on the outcomes of measures, including TAC reductions, was fully evident.

The Commission constantly appeared to be on the back foot with no real answers for many of the questions posed by the industry representatives. It is clear that the start of the reform process has given officials “permission” to criticise the status quo. The result is frustration in the short term and a promise of change for the future. For vessels struggling to maintain economic viability in the here and now, in the context of low fish prices and high costs, whilst they are obliged to discard marketable fish, this will not be a welcome message.

  • “Comitology” is EU jargon for a transfer of decision making responsibility from the Council of Ministers to the Commission and Council working groups. It is the main plank in the Commission’s interim proposals for dealing with the longer timeframe for fisheries legislation implied by co-decision making. It raises however, serious questions about increasing the role of the unelected and largely unaccountable, Commission services.

BCD July 09