The Titanic Sails at Midnight

21st February 2014 in Discards, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Midnight January 1st 2016 marks the embarkation date for the EU discards ban for our demersal fisheries. Like the Titanic, it is doomed to collide with some hard realities.

The Titanic Sails at Midnight

With fatal design flaws and a course that will lead it through treacherous waters, the EU landings obligation is a high-risk gamble that has great potential for catastrophe. Like the Titanic, where the expectations and aspirations of the owners set up time pressures that precluded a much safer course to the destination, the European co-legislators and the Commission have created a dangerous path to the objective of low discard fisheries. At risk are all the gains that have been made over the last 10 years in putting European fisheries on a sound and sustainable footing.

Those design flaws include:

  • A rushed timetable for implementation; the Norwegian experience suggests that an incremental and adaptive approach is required to resolve the multiple issues associated with the biggest change in the history of the CFP
  • Signs that the clean sweep of all discard generating rules within the CFP, prior to the application of the discard ban will be inadequate and incomplete
  • Imposing an obligation on EU fleets which requires Norway’s agreement on critical elements to make it workable
  • Applying a discard ban before serious data deficiencies have been resolved
  • Embarking without a plan on how to deal with choke species (where the premature exhaustion of one (often bycatch)species prevents uptake of the main economic species
  • Unreasonable and unachievable requirements that crews provide “detailed and precise records” of every last fish discarded, when even “experts” can have problems distinguishing between species on deck
  • Devolving implementation responsibility to the regional level but then imposing unachievable conditions.

Like the Titanic, the discard ban is a grandiose, eye-catching initiative. The great white ship impressed those who knew little or nothing about ship design, navigation or seamanship; similarly, fishermen, scientists, control authorities and fisheries administrators, have all voiced their concerns about the implementation of the new discard legislation. Agreed in a maelstrom of publicity as the centrepiece of the CFP reform, even some environmental NGOs are now backing away from the monster that they have helped to create and set on course towards the ice fields.

Like the Titanic, the owners of the discard ban will be miles away and long gone when tragedy strikes. Commissioner Damanaki, TV celebrities, MEPs and ministers who created the bandwagon will no longer be there to take responsibility. Some ministers, including our own, have already gone, and more MEPs and the Commissioner will leave the stage this year - having milked all the credit possible for the media-inspired policy and leaving the policy to make its fateful rendezvous with the iceberg.

A Change of Course?

A change of course could save the ship even at this late stage, despite its grievous design flaws, by navigating away from the danger zone. Member states have the scope and responsibility to design and shape regional discard plans in ways that could reduce the risks. Altering course through exemptions and quota flexibilities, by applying a pragmatic control regime and by facing down some of the more poorly thought-through aspects of the owners' demands, could save the vessel even at the 11th hour.

There is much to be said for regionalisation of the CFP. It offers a means to at least begin to break away from the over-centralised command and control approach which lies at the heart of so many of the CFP’s failures. But to confront regionally cooperating member states on their first outing with mission impossible - the implementation of the discard ban – could look like a devious plan by the Brussels technocracy to discredit decentralisation; a plot beyond even the most swivel-eyed conspiracy theorist.

But regionally cooperating member states, working with stakeholders in the advisory councils, is all that lies between an industry and policy moving at full-speed towards the iceberg. That is why with our own fisheries department in DEFRA, in the regional advisory councils and in discussions with scientist in ICES and STECF, the NFFO has been working assiduously to secure a post-2016 regime that is consistent with the viability of the industry and which does not squander the hard won gains made in recent years.

Pilots and Preparation We are also urging a dramatic expansion in funding and quota availability to undertake pilots and trials that will allow us to anticipate the choke species - and develop solutions consistent with the landings obligation.

One of the central issues which will determine the fate of the discard ban, and the fishing industry’s attitude to it, will be the scale and sequence of the quota uplifts to cover fish previously discarded. Given the extent of data uncertainties, this has to be a central worry and we are arguing vigorously for a thoughtful rather than a fingers-crossed and hope for the best approach.

Follow that Ship?

Before the discard ban hits its main target - the mixed demersal fisheries - the landings obligation will be applied to the pelagic fisheries from 1st January 2015.

Whether there will be lessons learnt from this experience and whether they will be the right kind of lessons is a moot point. Pelagic fisheries certainly present a lesser challenge than the mixed demersal fisheries but that it not to say that there are no problems. Lessons will surely be learnt but is doubtful that this will provide a helpful overall template for whitefish.

Unnecessary Voyage

One important omission in the extensive and intense media coverage of discards has been that before it hit the headlines, discarded fish was a problem progressively reducing in size. Discards in the English fleet for example had reduced by 50% in the previous decade and there is every reason to believe that this progress would continue. Similar initiatives and trends have taken place in other parts of the UK and in other member states.

Admittedly, the CFP needed a shake up to remove all the legislation that currently helps to generate discards - the catch composition rules and effort control spring to mind - but this could have been approached in a different manner. Even in Norway, where a discard ban has been applied pragmatically and incrementally over 20 years, the evidence is that discarding still takes place at some level, possibly as high as 15%. That is great progress from over 50% but it is not zero. At least with an incremental approach there is a chance to adjust to address the inevitable problems as they arise.

North Sea Realities

It's been a while since there were icebergs in the North Sea but there are certainly plenty of potential complexities and pitfalls in implementing the landings obligation there.

The emerging statistics on the North Sea discard pattern are instructive. 40% of the catch in the North Sea is discarded. Of that 40%, 80% is comprised of two species: plaice and dab. Plaice (depending on a range of factors) is estimated to have a 60% survival rate when returned to the sea. Does it make sense to retain on board and land (dead) plaice in those circumstances, depriving the biomass of that 60%? Is this not a prima facie case for a high survival exemption?

And the reason that dabs are discarded is that there is low market demand for them. This is somewhere that celebrity chefs and their TV programmes could actually do some good.

All this illustrates that the discard ban is going to be anything but straightforward. Even before we get to the problems associated with exemptions there are the issues of inter-species flexibility, choke species and negotiating TAC arrangements for shared stocks with Norway.

Western Waters Complexities

If anything, the complexities are even greater in Western Waters, the seas traversed by the Titanic on its fateful voyage. There are certainly more data limited stocks in these fisheries, notwithstanding the close collaborative work undertaken between ICES and the North West Waters RAC. And the fisheries are much more mixed, raising multiple questions about quota uplift and choke stocks. Much work remains to be done.

Disaster Averted?

Despite the parallels with the Titanic there is still time to steer the landings obligation clear of the ice. It will not be easy, constrained as we are by the owners' orders. But if the captain has the courage and skill to set a new course and to challenge, and if necessary defy, his superiors, there is a chance that disaster can be averted.