Only a few short months after the annual fisheries agreement for 2021 between the UK and EU was concluded, preparations are under way for talks about total allowable catches and associated rules which will apply in 2022.
There is hope on both sides that it will be possible to avoid repeating the prolonged and torturous process that marked the 2021 negotiations. That initial set of negotiations, with the UK acting as an independent coastal state for the first time, and the ink barely dry on the TCA, were painfully slow and difficult. Covid restrictions also severely hampered the decision-making process. The aim for this year is to secure agreement by 10th December.
ICES scientific recommendations for 2022 were published at the end of June and will provide the foundation for the talks and final decisions, but raw single species advice will have to be balanced with mixed fishery considerations, socio-economic concerns and overall coherence.
The talks will again take place within the provisions of the TCA, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, famously signed by the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve last year. The intervening period has been turbulent and has witnessed border trade difficulties, a long delay in implementing a process for international quota swaps, enormous uncertainty about the future management of non-quota stocks, the first faltering steps of the Specialised Committee on Fisheries, and a slow realisation of the implications of what was agreed in the TCA. In the meantime, the UK has for the first time used its regulatory autonomy to increase the principal mesh size for all demersal vessels fishing in the Celtic Sea from 80mm to 100mm, as it begins the shift away from the Common Fisheries Policy, much of which has been kept as retained EU law to avoid a regulatory vacuum.
Norway and Faroes
The UK/EU negotiations are important but are only one set of talks within a complex matrix of negotiated decisions for 2022. Coastal states, like Norway, Faroes, Iceland, EU and UK will discuss TACs and quota shares for massive but highly migratory species like, mackerel, blue whiting and atlanto-scandian herring. Following Norway’s decision to award itself a hugely increased share of mackerel for 2021, these talks begin from a difficult place and have wide implications for other fisheries. Although TACs for jointly managed demersal species like cod, haddock and whiting, were set trilaterally by UK/Norway and EU, there was no reciprocal fisheries agreement between the UK and Norway for 2021, and therefore no access to fish in each other’s waters for this year. Whether this economically damaging failure will be repeated in 2022, will be central to this year’s negotiations. In this sense, all parts of the fisheries negotiations, pelagic, demersal, external waters are all interlinked and mutually dependent.
Notwithstanding the political/jurisdictional complexities triggered by the UK’s departure from the EU, ICES advice will remain the foundation and reference point for the decisions ahead. The form and timing of the scientific advice can also be controversial. Volatility in the advice from one year to the next, as the scientists make up their minds, is a particular feature of this year’s recommendations. The emergence of ICES mixed fisheries advice so late in the year, zero-TAC advice for one species caught in a mixed-fishery configuration are not regarded by fisheries managers as particularly helpful. In the North Sea and Celtic Sea, cod, which as a species at its southernmost extent in our waters, is undergoing distributional shifts that raise fundamental questions about how to assess the stock and design appropriate management measures for the future. When North Sea cod faces a recommended TAC reduction in the region of 10%, whilst the recommendations for haddock and whiting, largely caught in the same fisheries, of increases 86% and 136% increases respectively, it is possible to glean an understanding of the management challenges ahead.
There is now a widespread but tacit understanding that the EU landings obligation was a huge, grandiose, failure. The big discard numbers in the North Sea, quoted ad nauseum, by discard campaigners related primarily to only two stocks – dab and plaice. The EU removed TAC status from dab – excluding it from the landing obligation; and plaice in the North Sea has both an enviable conservation status and justifies high survival exemptions in many fisheries. So, what was the landings obligation all about? There has been no resolution to the problem of chokes in mixed fisheries, other than temporary de minimis exemptions and the visibility of catches has decreased in many fisheries. The landing obligation wrecked the EU’s first tentative steps towards regionalisation and will go down in history as a classic and spectacular example of a failure of centralised, top-down, fisheries management.
Nevertheless, minimising discards to the extent possible, whilst maintaining economically viable fleets, will be an important factor on this year’s round of decisions.
Despite the failure of the landing obligation, there is an ongoing and important challenge for the fishing industry and fisheries managers to reduce unwanted catch – both for stock conservation and industry reputational reasons. Fisheries management plans, as envisaged under the Fisheries Act 2020, may well prove to be the vehicle for more effective and sensitive discard reduction initiatives, but in the meantime, it makes no sense at all to force fishing vessels to discard perfectly good fish back into the sea because of quota limits or technical measures.
Some headway was made last year, led by the UK, in allowing some fleet sectors to land a higher proportion of unavoidable bycatch of seabass. Building on that welcome movement forward, whilst keeping an overall lid on fishing mortality, will be an important objective in the coming round of negotiations.
Because of its shape and size cod has always been a tricky species to select out without losing other marketable species but the combination of low TAC and quota shares that do not reflect fleet activity, discards remain a central management and industry problem that will feature large in this year’s negotiations. The problems are particularly acute in the North and Celtic Seas
The Federation has been and will continue to be engaged in every aspect of the annual negotiations. In fact, arriving at TAC decisions is the culmination of a year-long (and sometimes longer) process involving:
- Feeding into the science, especially through the ICES benchmark process and dialogue with Cefas scientists during the year, as well as Fisheries/Science partnership projects
- Dialogue with Defra officials on issues of concern to the industry, negotiating principles and objectives
- Balancing short-term economic viability and long-term sustainability objectives
- Ensuring that decisions make biological and socio-economic sense at vessel level
- Highlighting inconsistencies and contradictions between different sets of rules
- Ensuring that every fleet sector on receives a hearing
- Ensuring that the English fleets get a fair hearing within the context of devolution, despite having no dedicated champion at ministerial level
- Highlighting the consequences of different policy decisions
- Resisting one-dimensional politically driven interventions
- Helping to formulate and fine-tune negotiating priorities and the allocation of scarce negotiating capital.