The Future of RACs

5th October 2012 in Advisory Councils

The future of the regional advisory councils was discussed recently in Brussels at an landmark meeting attended by the Director General for EU fisheries.

The Federation is actively involved as a member of four regional advisory councils: North Sea, North Western Waters, Pelagic and Long Distance RACs. The NFFO was present at the meeting representing the North Sea RAC.

RACs are generally recognised as the most successful element of the last (2002) CFP reform. They have proven to be much more cohesive, relevant, focused and dynamic than many expected and have produced a great deal of well thought-through advice on the management fisheries in each sea basin.

The meeting was held to discuss what form the RACs should take during the next phase of the Common Fisheries Policy, especially within the context of a more regionalised CFP.

Regional Management

The exact form which a regionalised CFP will take will depend on

  • The reform legislation currently under consideration by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers
  • The degree and form which member state cooperation takes in each sea basin under the new arrangements.

Regional cooperation is likely to take different shapes in different regions but there is broad agreement that the RACs, by virtue of their composition and regional focus, are likely to play an enhanced role everywhere. As well as shaping the broad management framework, through their advice to the Commission and European Parliament, the RACs are expected, in future, to provide cooperating member states with advice on appropriate management for the fisheries within their area of responsibility. A much closer working relationship and dialogue between the RACs (or soon to be ACs) and the member states is therefore expected to build under a regionalised CFP.

The arrangements for the Pelagic RAC and the Long Distance RAC will be adapted to the very specific characteristics of their fisheries: in the former highly migratory stocks which cross multiple political boundaries and in the latter, stocks which are wholly managed by Third Countries. Indeed, there is likely to be no one-size-fits-all approach to how RACs adapt to regionalisation.

The meeting discussed the many challenges involved in providing high quality stakeholder advice under the new structure, including the practicalities of establishing a dialogue with regionally cooperating member states; how to further strengthen the RACs cooperation with fisheries scientists; and how the RACs’ work will be funded in future.

Composition

There was broad agreement that the current composition of the RACs ( 2/3rd fishing industry, 1/3 other stakeholders) represented a valuable balance which should be retained, not least because some RACs had faced problems in filling all the seats provided for the non-fishing sector stakeholders.

In some RACs ensuring a strong voice for small-scale fishers represents a challenge, given the geography and fragmentation of this part of the industry. The meeting discussed how this might best be overcome. Greater involvement in RAC working and focus groups, outreach programmes, and the use of modern communications technologies are already being used to strengthen the voice of small-scale fishers but could be taken further. Many are already represented through existing representative structures such as the NFFO, but it is acknowledged that many others (partly because to date they have been largely unaffected by the CFP) are not well organised.

The pitfalls of small, noisy, self-appointed but unrepresentative groups which have visibility but low levels of actual support within the small-scale sector were discussed in this context.

Roles and Tasks

The challenge of moving from cosmetic consultation, to meaningful consultation, and from there to effective forms of co-management was discussed. With much still to be decided, both at EU and regional cooperation levels, it would unwise at this stage to be too prescriptive about the future role of RACs but the general direction of greater stakeholder involvement in the development and implementation of multi-annual management plans is well understood.

The NSRAC made clear that the biggest threat to a move in this direction would be if the co-legislators remained addicted to prescriptive micro-management. The Commission affirmed that it wished to see a decisive transfer of detailed decision-making to the regions. It regretted that some member states, and possibly some groups in the European Parliament, who failed yet to see the advantages of a decentralised system, and these represented the main obstacle to effective regionalisation.

The Commission agreed to convene a seminar involving the RACs and the member states to progress the implementation of a regionalised approach.

Funding

The meeting quickly abandoned the notion that the RACs should do “more with less” in favour of a discussion of how funding for an expansion of the RACs’ work could be supplemented from other sources. In this context the following was discussed:

  • Ensuring that the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund is structured in a way that would ease applications from the RACs
  • Ensuring that member state contributions continue
  • The importance of avoiding undue influence on RAC policy decisions by making them vulnerable to accepting funding from private sources for their survival was stressed
  • RAC membership contributions were already finely balanced between ability to pay and a sign of commitment – there was no enthusiasm for a two level financial contribution, which would suggest a two tier RAC
  • Improving access to European research funds; these are substantial but access for non-experts is impenetrable
  • A more flexible accounting system for the use of EU funds within the RACs was an urgent necessity, although general EU funding rules would still have to be observed

The meeting was reminded that the quality of RAC advice was closely linked to the quality of the work done in its preparation and this, in turn, required funding.

It was agreed that RACs would in future have to focus on core areas of work to maximise their relevance and the value of their advice. It would be vital to plan work according to the calendar of forthcoming events.

Science

The meeting addressed how to ensure that the RACs could build on the good but essentially ad hoc involvement in the preparation of RAC advice. It was recognised that ICES scientists were overstretched and that a streamlined process for providing advice to which RACs would have access was already under consideration.

It was accepted that the dialogue between stakeholders and fisheries scientists had already come a long way through participation in ICES benchmark meetings and the Commission’s Scientific, Technical Economic Committee for Fisheries.

Consensus

The Commission suggested that within a regionalised CFP, RAC advice would be required in relation to (upstream) co-decision proposals as well as in the (downstream) implementation and tailoring of multiannual management plans. There was agreement that the Commission would be looking for consensus on the latter but majority decisions with minority positions recorded would be useful in relation to the former. There was however no question of requiring consensus decisions as this would involve some form of voting, which was something no one wanted.

Other Issues

Other issues discussed were:

  • How to deal with the international aspects of RACs work where stocks are shared by Third Countries
  • In future there will be fewer Commission officials to attend RAC meetings because of general reductions in public expenditure
  • The arrangements for replacing those parts of ACFA not covered by RAC work are still under discussion
  • There will be a new AC for aquaculture

Conclusion

This was an important meeting that probably marks the RACs’ transition into a second generation. It is likely that over the period to the next reform, in 2022, RACs, or ACs, will become direct and central players in determining the shape of the management regime in their respective sea basins. RACs have already gained respect within the fishing industry, and amongst other stakeholders, as well as the Commission and the European Parliament. Some member states already play a direct and active role in RAC meetings; this will be developed into regional management. An important and constructive dialogue has already been built between RACs and ICES scientist at varying levels; this will be an integral part of a move to a regional focus in management.

All this provides an important foundation on which the future development of the(R) ACs will be based. There is much to do in establishing an effective form of regional management within the framework established by the European institutions but the alternative – centralised command and control micro-management - has been tried and found lacking. Given the realities of shared stocks, and geography, the need for bottom up approaches and cooperation, there is, in fact, little choice but to get on with the job. This meeting was important in highlighting what needs to be done and some of the ways in which it can be done.