The Precautionary Approach and Fisheries Policy

14th December 2011 in Fisheries Science

The precautionary approach is now well embedded within fisheries science and fisheries policy, and has been since the late 1990s.

Stock assessments are expressed within a framework that identifies limit and precautionary reference points for those stocks where the data allows. And EU policy justifies its approach to data deficient stocks by reference to the precautionary approach.

It certainly makes sense to take action where there is a potential risk but we don’t have full information. However, the problem with the application of the precautionary approach (as opposed to the concept) is that it takes place within a framework without limits or guidance on how far to go with it. If environmental considerations alone are applied unconstrained then there is no room for human activity of any kind, anywhere, ever. Not even the more extreme, media-focused, environmental NGOs espouse that view.

How do we balance environmental, economic and social considerations? There is general agreement that the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic and social, should all be part of the mix but there is no explicit guidance on how this should be achieved in practical terms.

This leaves us in a situation such as we see for example in the Commission’s precautionary approach to data deficiency – to cut TACs for stocks where ICES is unable to provide an “analytical” TAC with population estimates – by 25%. There is a genuine problem with data deficiencies but the Commission’s approach has been apparently unconstrained by any concern about the economic or social impact of such a policy. Unanimous opposition by member states at the October Council of Ministers have now forced the Commission to soften this hard-line approach but the fact that it could be made in the first place is indicative of a lack of checks and balances in the formulation of policy within the CFP.

Environmental objectives are vital but so are social and economic dimensions and not just as a brake on environmental policy. Pursuing one of the three pillars, irrespective of the cost to the others is untenable because ultimately they can only be achieved in tandem. The early experiences of game reserves in Africa spelt out the need to take the economic wellbeing of local tribes-people into account in achieving the conservation objectives of the reserve. The same applies to fisheries. STECF’s recent evaluation of the EU Cod Management Plan concluded that a plan that had the support of the principal stakeholders is more likely to be successful that one which doesn’t.

As the debate on CFP reform, and the best way of dealing with mixed fisheries and multi-species issues continues, we need to discuss how it is possible to achieve conservation and environmental objectives in a way that is not lopsided and therefore often ineffective. Recent policy, often too media focused, has failed to achieve that balance. The need now is to find a way in which social and economic costs are considered in a balanced and meaningful part of the formation of fisheries policy, rather than stuck on as an afterthought – an annoying obstacle to be pushed aside for the greater good.

The Council of Ministers meeting this week will be instructive about whether this kind of balance is going to be the way forward. On the table is the Commission’s blunt proposal for TAC reductions for data deficient stocks. The RACs and member states have pointed out that this is not an appropriate police response to the problem of data deficient stocks, and that as well as being inequitable and counterproductive, it will generate increase regulatory discards. The outcome of the Council in this regard will be a test on how the precautionary approach is to be applied within the CFP in future.