What will the landings obligation mean for me? Will there be time to adapt?

25th March 2015 in Discards

Two perfectly reasonable questions are being asked across the industry, as the deadline for applying the landings obligation to the whitefish sector looms closer. This article will not provide the answers to those questions. It can only shed some light on the process under way that may, in time, provide the answers.

What will the landings obligation mean for me? Will there be time to adapt?

Landings Obligation

The landing obligation comes into force for demersal species in January next year. If the member states are going to submit joint recommendations for regional discard plans, these must be agreed and submitted by this June at the latest. If they cannot agree, the default is a Commission regulation and nobody wants that; least of all the Commission.

It is nearly 24 months since an opportunist celebrity chef and a gung-ho Commissioner, and their allies, succeeded in persuading the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers that a landings obligation would be a good idea. But at this stage, a matter of months away from its implementation, we know next to nothing about how the new regime will operate.

This is not because of inactivity by any party. The discard ban for pelagic species naturally took precedence as it had an earlier start date. But the delay is also because the implementation of the landings obligation in mixed demersal fisheries is fiendishly difficult.

The landings obligation landings is billed to to auger in the most significant change to the management rules since the CFP was established. If this is the case, fishing vessels will need time to adapt. Operators will need to know the rules under which they will have to operate.

Land all quota species

The landings obligation itself is simple enough: all quota species will have to be landed and will count against quota. But fisheries managers know that in a system of Total Allowable Catches in mixed gear, multi-species, fisheries, where quota distribution is based on international and domestic relative stability, and where selecting out unwanted catch on the seabed is not always possible, this is a recipe for economic and social disaster. Exemptions, phasing, and quota flexibilities will all be necessary to make the landings obligation workable. This however, inevitably makes the regime more complicated.

Regional Discard Plans

The NFFO has been working with the North Sea and North Western Waters advisory councils, who have in turn been working with the member states to design and agree a workable approach.

North Sea

The North Sea AC has taken the view that the least worst, and certainly the simplest and cleanest way to phase-in the landings obligation would be to start in the first year with only one species; then learn the lessons, allow the industry and system managers time to adapt before moving on to the next species. All vessels operating within a sea area would be required to land the same species. This is the way that Norway introduced their discard ban, incrementally adding species and making the necessary adjustments along the way.

This is not what is going to happen. The problem is that under extreme political pressure the CFP basic regulation fell into the old trap of being too prescriptive and having insufficient grasp of the realities fishing. This early mistake has subsequently led to much soul searching between member states, and within the Commission, about whether it is possible to “break the whitefish cluster” of cod, haddock, whiting and saithe, to ease in the landings obligation in its first year by applying the discard ban to only one or two those species; or similarly, to break the flatfish cluster, with sole and plaice treated differently.

North West Waters

The NWWAC and member states took the view from the outset that given the diversity of fisheries in its area of jurisdiction, a fisheries approach to phasing would be required. However, there is no disguising the difficulty of defining separate fisheries when different rules will apply on either side of any boundary that is created.

Whilst some member states seem to favour using the gear categories developed the under the EU Cod Plan, ( TR1, Tr2, BT1, BT2 etc,) others point to the inherent rigidity in such an approach. The other weakness of an approach based on gear categories is that its dependence on use of a particular mesh size range, at exactly the time when vessels might need to change their mesh size (and other aspects of their fishing operations) to reduce unwanted catch, is potentially to put an obstacle in the way of vessels’ adaptation to the landings obligation and to set up the kind of perverse incentives that we have seen before in the Cod a Plan.

An alternative is to look at what a vessel has caught in the past in order to allocate it to a particular fishery with particular discard rules. The trouble with this is obvious: it is backward looking and is bound to come into friction with any significant level of change in what has always been a dynamic industry.

A NWWAC drafting group has suggested a radically different approach: let the fisherman decide, at the start of the year, or season, or even before the start of each trip, in which of the defined fisheries vessel is participating (whitefish, nephrops, hake, flatfish). This would determine the discard rules under which the vessel is operating, at least for the three years 2016-2018 over which the landings obligation will be phased in. Linked to a phased approach, this elective approach would limit the landings obligation to one species in year 1, this approach seems to marry simplicity with flexibility. The mandatory use of electronic logbooks in all over-12 metre vessels goes a long way to making such an approach workable. Again, the signs are that it is highly unlikely that this approach will be used – but not for any coherent or rational reason but for short term administrative convenience.

Meetings Meetings

In order to deliver regional discard plans by the due deadlines, agreed and discussed with the advisory councils, an intense programme of meetings is under way. Fisheries Directors are meeting regularly in High Level meetings to agree broad strategy and principles; officials from the member states also work in technical meetings on the design and details of their discard plans. Phasing, definition of fisheries, quota uplift, high survival exemptions, de minimis exemptions, minimum conservation reference sizes; these are the issues that the member states are tussling with. There are significant differences in approach between the member states. Some take a more purist legalistic approach whilst others already less focused on legal texts than in designing something that works in the real world. The pressure is on them, however, to come to a unanimous agreement on the content of the discard plans.

Sometime in May

Probably sometime in May, the advisory councils will be asked to comment on the draft discard plans. These will indicate what species will have to be landed in the first year; they will also indicate where the member states intend to apply for exemptions on the grounds of the high survival rate of species when they are returned to the sea; they will also specify de minimis exemptions, to be used where there are problems in making the fishery more selective, or where there are disproportionate costs involved.

Quota Uplift

At that point fishing vessels will be able to begin to assess the implications of the discard ban in its first year. But there will still be an important piece of the jigsaw missing: the quota uplift that will accompany TACs being based on total catches rather than just landings. That will not be known fully until the December Council, although pointers will be available when ICES publishes its annual advice in late May, early June. One of the appealing features of the species approach was that it would require the addition of entirety of the estimated discards into each TAC. A fisheries approach, with different vessels operating under different discard rules means that any quota uplift is likely to be partial and raise difficult questions over the distribution of the quota uplift. A further worry is that ICES data on discard rates in the different fisheries can best be described as patchy. In some fisheries there has been pretty comprehensive observer cover and the discard estimates are pretty sound; in other fisheries the assessments depend on something closer to educated guesswork. All of this could have a profound impact on the level of quota uplift in specific fisheries and the likelihood of chokes.

High Survival

It makes sense to most people to return to the sea that part of unwanted catch that has a good chance of surviving and adding to the biomass of that species. A rational approach to a landings obligation would have preceded the ban by an extensive period of data collection and analysis. Knowing which species exhibit high survival, under which conditions, is critically important to making sensible decisions. The rushed timetable precludes this and so member states are going to have to make some political/pragmatic judgements on which survival exemptions to include in their joint recommendations for discard plans. We think that it makes more sense to grant exemptions, then remove them if the evidence isn't their to support them, than to create onshore infrastructures to deal with unwanted catch, only to abandon them when the evidence suggests that an exemption is justified. The key criterion should be whether an exemption increases or decreases overall fishing mortality of the species concerned.

Steps

Once the discard plans are agreed by the regional member states, they will be submitted to the Commission. The Commission’s quality control body, the Scientific, Technical, Economic Committee for Fisheries, will then be asked to evaluate the regional discard plans. If considered acceptable they will then be adopted through a Commission delegated act. The European Parliament will be invited to express an opinion (but only an opinion).

Only at that stage will vessels begin to have some idea in broad outline of what lies in store for them in 2016.