Sleeves were rolled up in London recently, as large teams from NFFO and DEFRA/Cefas got to grips…
A Defra consultation later this year will mark a fork in the road for the shellfish fisheries.
Although the pot fisheries for crab and lobster have been in an enviable position over the last decade, certainly compared to the traumas faced by the whitefish sector, there is mounting pressure to take conservation steps to ensure that they do not go down the same path.
Although the scientific assessments of the various shellfish stocks in UK waters lack a high degree of precision, the principal concern is to find a way to cap fishing effort at current levels and to prevent a further expansion of the fishery that could undermine this broadly healthy position. One of the perceived dangers lies with the amount of latent fishing effort contained in dormant or underutilised licence entitlements that if unleashed on the shellfish stocks, could spell disaster. Concerns over seasonal overproduction in the crab fisheries have also been a driver for a more restrictive regime that has applied to date.
To date the NFFO has advocated an approach to shellfish conservation based on a strong regional dimension and local management where possible, to reflect the diversity of conditions found around the coast; as well as taking into account the differences between the inshore fisheries and the more nomadic fisheries. We have actively supported inte rnational voluntary measures to curb seasonal overproduction in the crab fisheries.
TACs and Quotas for Shellfish?
From preliminary discussions, the signs are that Defra will shortly propose the introduction of TACs and quotas for the brown crab and lobster fisheries, linked to a system of rights based management. This would set overall catch limits. Individual vessel’s access to the resulting quota allocations would be linked to some form of previous track record in the shellfish fisheries. The main justification for this approach, which will amount to the most radical management intervention in the shellfisheries since the introduction of minimum landing sizes, is that without a means to cap latent effort, any future conservation measures could be undermined by an increase in the number of vessels currently prosecuting other fisheries turning to shellfish.
This new approach in the shellfisheries marks a departure from the previously favoured policy – a national pot limitation scheme. Although there are examples of successful pot limitation schemes (Brittany, Northumbria) these tend to be those applied in relatively local circumstances where conditions are broadly similar for all vessels. Progress always seemed to stall on a national scheme because of foreseeable problems of how to achieve equity across widely differing fleets and fishing operations, and the balance between effective enforcement and bureaucracy.
There is no disguising that the approach now chosen by Government will be divisive, within the industry at large and within the NFFO.
On the one hand are dedicated shellfish vessels, committed to the shell fisheries, who are willing to support sensible conservation measure to ensure the long term health of the stocks but who see no point in their sacrifice, if the success of these measures then simply attracts additional effort into their fishery. Moving forward on shellfish conservation requires an effective ring-fence to provide security for those who have invested in and are already committed to the shellfish fisheries.
On the other hand, there are those who have not been active in the shellfisheries in recent years but who hold an entitlement to fish for shellfish that can be activated in the future. Under the expected Defra proposals these licence holders would lose this entitlement and with it the option to diversify into shellfish in the future. They stress the importance of maintaining flexibility to change target species and gears, in the ever changing context of inshore fisheries. This is an argument against the progressive pigeon holing of the fleet that can have adverse economic and conservation consequences.
Over and above divergent views on how to deal with latent effort are a number of practical considerations on Defra’s preferred approach.
- The first is with the logic of imposing quantitative limits (quotas) on the UK fleet when other EU fleets will not be similarly constrained. A solution to this problem could lie in pressing for similar limits in other member states but there is a natural reluctance to follow the same path as the whitefish industry into an EU controlled system of TACs and quotas
- The second consideration concerns the fact that a large proportion of the fleet is under-10 metres in length and until relatively recently there has been no EU or UK obligation for this category to submit catch returns. This raises questions over the validity of basis for allocation of share of the quota
- A third question relates to whether scientific assessments are precise enough to make satisfactory recommendations on TAC levels in the crab and lobster fisheries
It is clear from discussions held so far that shellfish conservation through the vehicle of rights based management is only part of a much wider package of reforms envisaged by Defra. These would stretch across the inshore fisheries, and across both under-10 and over-10 metre whitefish quota management.
We will know more when the various consultation papers are published later this spring but it is clear that shellfish is intended to be part of a broad programme of reform and that dealing with the issue of latent capacity will be at the heart of the approach.
In an area as complicated as shellfish conservation, one of the most important ways in which policy mistakes can be avoided is by through the preparation of a thorough impact assessment. Although these can vary enormously in scope and quality, the best provide clear guidance on the potential consequences of various options, including the status quo.
NFFO Shellfish Committee
These are not simple issues and the NFFO has never patronised its members by suggesting simplistic solutions where these are not available. When the proposals are published, the NFFO Shellfish Committee will study them and then meet to agree NFFO policy on this undeniably complex and potentially divisive issue. It is of the utmost importance that all parts of the Federation’s membership with a stake in these issues attend the meetings to ensure that all sides of the argument are taken into account.
The NFFO’s broad and varied membership can be seen as a microcosm of the wider industry complexes and therefore the Federation’s views on this issue are likely to be of particular interest to Government.