Assistant chief executve, Dale Rodmell, reflects on Brexit, the disconnect between industry and the Common Fisheries Policy and the influence and role of environmental NGOs.
Fishing became the political poster child of the Brexit campaign. It’s easy to see why. More than in any other area of EU policy, the story of fisheries epitomises a sense of lost control and real loss as our industry bore the brunt of year after year of cuts at the hands of a distant invisible bureaucracy that gave the impression that it was oblivious to the livelihood needs of fishing communities. Changes to improve things to better connect industry to policy have also seemed slow and insufficient. In order to better understand the issues we now face following the Brexit vote it is worth examining the history of involvement of the fishing industry in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and in more recent times the emergence of environmental NGOs as a significant influence.
The CFP Disconnect
Up until 2004 the only direct engagement the industry had with the CFP machinery was through the Advisory Committee for Fisheries and Aquaculture (ACFA), a forum of industry and representatives of fish workers that advised the Commission across the whole spectrum of European fisheries. As a single forum that only met occasionally it was grossly inadequate for the task.
The first efforts to change this state of affairs followed the crises of the 1990s that saw drastic cuts to whitefish quotas and to the fleet. From the discontent that was generated the 2002 CFP reform saw the introduction of the Regional Advisory Councils (now Advisory Councils). These were much more significant forums with secretariats to support their work and they gave industry a much more robust platform at a more appropriate scale to influence management decisions, alongside other stakeholders. But the Advisory Councils were not the be all and end all. Advice is just that. It has no direct role in setting management objectives and operational rules. There was wide recognition that involvement still needed to be deepened further.
The opportunity for that came with the regionalisation agenda under the latest reform. At the start of the process the Commission, in its Green Paper of 2009, had started out accepting that there was still something wrong with the relationship between fisheries governance under the CFP and industry. It said that:
“Very little can be achieved if the forthcoming reform fails to motivate the catching sector, the processing and seafood chain as well as consumers to support the objectives of the policy and take responsibility for implementing them effectively. It is critical to the success of reform that industry should understand the need for it, support it and have a genuine stake in its successful outcome. In a mostly top-down approach, which has been the case under the CFP so far, the fishing industry has been given few incentives to behave as a responsible actor accountable for the sustainable use of a public resource. Co-management arrangements could be developed to reverse this situation.” (CFP Reform Green Paper, 2009)
Almost as soon as it was printed, however, this whole agenda was all about to be side-lined. In contrast to what the Commission technocrats were thinking, Commissioner Damanaki had spent her time in office either aloof or hostile to industry. The European Parliament with its newly established powers under the Lisbon Treaty had little affinity for grand ideas of delegating responsibility to others when it had just been given responsibility itself. That, combined with the vast majority of MEPs having an almost complete absence of knowledge of the fishing industry, but their ears open to anyone who would tell them what to think, set the stage for the next command and controllers’ charter that we now see in the current CFP.
How did it turn out that way? Enter the eNGOs. Many newly self-appointed as the guardians of our marine resources and ready to fight on the beaches with a war chest mostly convoyed over from the USA. They got to work firstly with a doom-mongers blitz. Despite ongoing progress with cutting fishing mortality and the start of recovery being seen across the NE Atlantic stocks, according to them stocks were in free fall and heading for extinction – remember the 100 cod left in the North Sea story, and the 2048 end of line hype? In this altered reality, the inference was that industry couldn’t be trusted with the public’s precious natural resources. They had pillaged them, and always hood-winked their politicians into agreeing short-termist decisions, right? And there was an urgency to put it all right, if not by 2015, then by 2020 at the latest, no exceptions. Accompanying this narrative was heavy lobbying of the European Parliament to introduce a strict set of regulation to be contained in the core legislation, providing little flexibility for application at the regional level (see figure below).
Then, in the midst of it all, along came one of our celebrity campaigning chefs to lob in a discards PR hand grenade, straight into Commissioner Damanaki’s lap. It didn’t matter that a lot of the discards were generated by the regulations themselves and that significant progress had already been made to reduce them. In a matter of weeks the industry was handed it back, in-kind; the obligation to (nearly) not throw a single fish over the side…whilst trying to do a circus act to remain within the constraints of all of the other regulations. Actually, the circus act was left for another day – too hard for the hard working legislators to think about at that time. The megalomaniacs were back in charge, and once the deal was signed, congratulating themselves on the fantastic job they had done.
Indeed, a number of them still believe it, and continue to press for the toughest interpretation of the reform text. They continue to try to persuade decision-makers that the scientists have it wrong over setting stock biomass levels consistent with sustainable yields. They continue to lambast Ministers for TAC decisions that are different from the single stock advice without acknowledging their role in a legitimate process to consider, beyond this advice, the balancing the pace of reaching MSY with mixed fishery considerations and the likelihood of generating large quantities of discards. And they are working to try to set up a police state of electronic monitoring to hold the whole thing together.
Shared Objectives, Wrong-headed Delivery
To be clear, the NFFO has not been against the policy objectives of the CFP. Maximising long term yields is a good thing, as is minimising discards. But fisheries management can’t sit in an ivory tower and hand down these objectives as prescriptive management regulations attached with “plucked out of the sky” non-negotiable deadlines without an appreciation of how to deliver at sea and manage change, whilst maintaining viable businesses.
Tighter management has thus come along just when we have been witnessing of stock recovery on the grounds. Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) targets have delayed increases to quotas. Across fisheries that had received severe cuts the evidence base which is dependent upon the operating fisheries themselves, has also been undermined resulting in the increased application of the precautionary approach, which leads to reduced quotas simply due to lack of knowledge on stock status. New stocks such as skates and rays have been placed on quota but again with limited evidence they too have been subject to successive cuts as a consequence of the precautionary approach. All of these situations have led to more instances where fishing opportunities are out of sync with stock abundance.
Add the landing obligation (discard ban) to all of this and we are heading for a crunch as the responsibility for the mis-match between availble quota and abundance is transferred to the fishing business with the expectation that they can somehow perform the circus act and avoid breaking the law. And if they can’t, they tie up and go bust. That’s the prospect of what so called “choke” stocks mean, when the available quota of one stock has been used up but the stock can’t be avoided and so fishing for other species has to stop.
eNGOs and Brexit
The Brexit vote demonstrated in spectacular fashion that keeping those who are affected by decisions remote from decision-making and marginalised from the agenda, that politics can and does come back to bite. Of course fisheries formed part of a much wider leave narrative over governance, identity, democracy and exclusion, but it was used graphically in the leave campaign to make the point.
In the wake of the vote there is likely to be a lot of soul searching in the EU about how to better connect the supra-national institutions to national populations. But the influence of eNGOs that was prominently visible in the latest CFP reform, and their habit of lobbying for top-down command and control environmental policy from the centre, hasn’t gone away with the vote. eNGOs are not accountable to the electorate. And in Europe the UK probably has an eNGO community that is more active than in any other nation.
eNGOs didn’t want Brexit. A large amount of environmental policy is attached in some way to EU governance, and as some have argued in our EU referendum blog, fisheries and other environmental issues go beyond the reach of single countries. But already some are calling on the UK government to be tough on regulation and others are seeking to disenfranchise our industry by
claiming that we fail to understand sustainability and the conservation of natural resources upon which our industry depends.
Rubbish. A cursory glance at our website and the work we are involved in will prove that is not the case. Such an assertion reflects just the sort of attitude of blaming the people for their lot and trying to marginalise them from decision-making that is the cause of political ruction, certainly not a solution to it. Such eNGOs should hold a mirror up to themselves about what the vote represented.
I appreciate, nonetheless, that so far in talking about eNGOs I am lumping together a great number of organisations and stereo-typing them as one. That is unfair. Not all are concerned with implementing legalistic regulatory frameworks from the centre and not all work to demonize and control the fishing industry without having anything to do with it. Indeed, some have a more collaborative side. The Advisory Councils have been pioneering in bringing eNGOs together with industry. In the fruits of the consensus-based advice that they produce, they demonstrate what is possible.
Working in Partnership
There are also a growing number who are beginning to work directly to support industry. We in industry need to foster these relationships, whilst continuing to call out those who would rather work in the shadows and transmit falsehoods about our industry, ferment division and continue to pedal the doom-mongers narrative in order to justify their next grant or charitable donation.
There is a lot to do that could be achieved working in partnership. We must strive to improve the ability of industry to generate its own evidence to be able to help to plug the gaps in our fisheries knowledge base. We need to press ahead with management approaches that incentivise industry, undertaking trials and ensuring that what works is adopted more widely. We need to create a policy environment where fisheries management is not all about compliance with the rules, it is about shared objectives, shared management and mutual buy-in. We must show how that is a different and a better way to the centralising tendencies of top-down control.
There are many governance models for our fisheries that may materialise post Brexit. There is nothing to say that one or other of the possibilities would not be some form of top-down control. Like any system of governance, when the pieces are thrown in the air they can so easily land with all the power greedily held at the centre or result with powerful lobbies dictating the terms. We will of course be working to see that whatever model it is, it is inclusive of industry.
I’ll close with a prediction. Fisheries will continue along the path to recovery and at some point the doom-mongers’ currency about our industry, like the boy who cried wolf, will be worthless. Those eNGOs that stick to it will either wither or go onto something else. The surviving ones still working in fisheries will be the ones that are actually supporting industry to sustainably manage its own affairs and celebrating what is possible. Bring on the optimists.