Bass: Repeating the mistakes of the past

10th December 2015 in Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Everyone makes mistakes. A measure of intelligence is how quickly we learn from those mistakes. We label as stupid, people who fail to learn the lessons of their past errors. How then to describe the European Commission’s failure to learn the lessons of the past? The history Common Fisheries Policy contains a litany of failed measures. In many respects, the current positive outlook for our stocks has been achieved in spite of, rather than because of, management measures. We have gone down so many blind alleys that the law of averages dictated that we would eventually stumble in the right direction. But the journey has been much more painful and taken much longer than necessary.

Bass: Repeating the mistakes of the past

One of the fundamental lessons that we should have learnt but don't seem to have, is that in general, in fisheries management, drastic changes should be avoided. Extreme measures tend to generate unintended consequences. Often they just displace the problem into an adjacent area/fleet/ fishery/ stock. Fishing businesses large and small need time to adapt. The active or tacit support of fishermen, that is the foundation of successful management, is hard to achieve against the background of confusion and hostility.

Cod recovery has been the classic example of drastic management measures – huge TAC reductions, savage days-at-sea restrictions – when seen in retrospect, were big mistakes. At point one cod was being discarded in the North Sea for every cod retained on board – a reflection of a clumsy and blundering policy. It wasn't until that policy morphed into something more intelligent – avoidance and improved selectivity – that real progress was made in rebuilding the biomass.

Despite regionalisation, which at present has its hands full implementing the landings obligation – possible the most poorly thought-through CFP measure of all - the Commission seems addicted to these flamboyant, dramatic, gesture politics that contain within them the seeds of their own failure.

Bass today is facing the same dilemma. It is clear that something needs to be done. Initial steps have been taken – catch limits, an increased landing size and bag limits for recreational anglers. But rather than assess the impact of these measures and adjust accordingly, the Commission has now jumped the rails and proposed what amounts to a moratorium on fishing for bass. Already it is possible to foresee some of the consequences: a huge increase in discarded bass in mixed fisheries where bass is a bycatch, where before there was no discard problem; an alienated fleet, forced to throw over the side the box or two of the most valuable species in their catch; fishing operations with nowhere else to turn in their struggle to earn a living.

Why do they do it? Why do our political masters fail to learn the lessons of the past? Is it because they don't know? Do they not have the depth of background understanding? Are they in fear of vilification by the media, always keen to sensationalise and accuse? Is it because their time horizons are so short?

All of these explanations are in the mix but it is not good enough.

Until the fundamental lessons are taken on board, we in the industry will have to deal with the aftermath of intemperate and fundamentally stupid decisions. By the time the evaluations tell the same sad old story of faiure, the commissioners, ministers and officials who sign up to these measures will have left the stage, no doubt feeling that they have done their duty by creating another piece of legislation. The reality is that they will have failed us again, and it will be fishermen who pick up the pieces.

It's not as though we don't know how success works. Get the right people in the room: fisheries scientists, fisheries administrators and fisheries stakeholders. Identify the basic problems, fleet by fleet, region by region; design and agree appropriate responses. Implement those measures carefully, incrementally, and in continuous dialogue. It's not spectacular. It's not flamboyant. But time after time it's the model that delivers when drastic measures merely shift the problem.

It is only to be hoped that at this late stage, as the December Council rapidly approaches that a flicker of recall will remind the Commission and the Council of Ministers what has worked in the past and what has failed.