The December Council remains (for the time being) an important date in the fishing calendar.
The earnings potential for next year for thousands of fishing vessels hang on the decisions made by a couple of dozen fisheries ministers cloistered in late night meetings with their officials.
The year-end negotiations do have a passing resemblance to a circus. However, what we see in December is the end point of a process which takes most of the year.
The starting point for this process can be taken as May/June, when two documents are released. The first is the publication of ICES scientific advice, containing catch options and TAC recommendations. The second is the Commission’s Communication, which spells out the broad principles that will be applied when the Commissions TAC and Quota proposal is published sometime around the beginning of November.
The NFFO’s work begins well before these documents are published, in challenging and questioning the scientific assumptions, data and methods used; and in making the case for better approaches to TAC decisions. Much of this work has been done in recent years within the advisory councils.
As the autumn approaches, the NFFO goes into a higher gear with detailed discussions on the UK’s priorities with Defra officials, and broader discussions with fisheries ministers about the approach to take to defend the UK’s interests. Making alliances with those member states whose interests are aligned with ours is an important part of the picture at this stage.
For those stocks jointly managed with Norway, the annual negotiations with Norway, which have just concluded, are where the critical decisions are made. An NFFO team was at both rounds, in Copenhagen and Bergen and the outcomes were as follows:
North Seas Joint Stock TACs
North Sea cod: 5% TAC increase plus 11% uplift. Moves the stock towards MSY whilst avoiding the 2% cut.
Saithe: 55% TAC increase plus 4.1% uplift
Haddock: 45% cut to correct the error last year’s advice and ensure fishing at FMSY. Now fully under landing obligation so TAC fixed at ICES total catch advice.
Whiting: rollover plus 17% uplift. Moves the stock towards MSY whilst avoiding the 29% cut.
North Sea Plaice: rollover plus 1.2% uplift
North sea Herring – 7% decrease due to poor recruitment
Haddock (IV) – 500t
Whiting (IV) – 300t
Others – 9,500t
Anglerfish (IV) – 1,500t
Ling (IV) – 1,350
Arcto-Norwegian cod – 23,000t
Arcto-Norwegian Haddock – 1,200t
Saithe (I, II) – 2,550t
Greenland Halibut (I, II) – 50t
Others (I, II)– 350t
Ling (IV,Vb,VI,VII,IIa) – 6,500
Tusk (IV,Vb,VI,VII,IIa) – 2,923
Horse mackerel (IVb,c) – 3,550
Saithe (IV, IIIa) –250t
Saithe (VIa) – 510t
Others (IV, IIa) 5,250
Blue whiting – 110,000t
Redfish – 740t
These decisions will, in the normal course of events, just be ratified by the Council of Ministers.
This year the December Council will take place in Brussels on 12th/13th December.
Ministers at this time of year often come under intense pressure from some of the more dogmatic green organisations for “departing from the scientific recommendations.” It is important therefore to understand that in the EU system, ministers have a unique and specific responsibility in setting TACs for the following year, to balance out a number of important factors. These include:
- Taking into account single stock advice produced by ICES
- Taking into account recent and relevant fisheries information
- Balancing these with mixed fisheries considerations
- Avoiding TAC decisions that will merely result in an increase in discards
- Taking into account socio-economic concerns, by for example phasing reductions when these are needed
- Taking into account, legal obligations, including the MSY timetable
For as long as TAC decisions are made (or ratified) by the December Council, it is important that this important balancing function is understood and recognised.
Maximum Sustainable Yield
Having the ambition to manage our fisheries so that they consistently deliver high yields is an eminently sensible policy. Ignoring biological and socio-economic realities in a blinkered race to an arbitrary MSY timetable, applied to all stocks irrespective of circumstances, makes no sense whatsoever – except perhaps to a handful of fundamentalists. As we approach the MSY deadline of 2020, the gap between aspiration and the reality inevitably becomes starker. The Commission has proposed gigantic cuts for some stocks. Channel cod with a proposed cut of 68% and Area VII megrim with a proposed cut of 28% are cases in point. At some juncture the Commission and member states will have to face the realities of a bulldozer MSY policy and adapt it to something more nuanced and workable. It the mean time ministers have a responsibility to keep things on an even keel.
Those fisheries and stocks brought into the landings obligation in 2017 should see their catch limits increase in line with the fish that was previously discarded. There are a number of difficulties to face:
- The question of how accurate the discard estimates are. In some fisheries these will be quite accurate; in others there will be a substantial misalignment. This can only lead to problems during the quota year, intensifying the choke problem
- Will the uplifts be directed to the right place? this is a political decision for each member state but will determine where in-year problems might be expected to appear
There seems to be an axiom that the more a stock is in the spotlight, the more decision-makers tend towards knee-jerk measures that sound like something that is being done but instead leave a legacy of carnage. The dead bass – a highly valuable species – discarded, that now litter the seabed, is the legacy of an EU decision last year to limit trawlers to a 1% bycatch. If the Commission’s proposal this year is followed by the Council, this problem will get worse – with absolutely minimal advantage in terms of reduced mortality. By banning gill nets from retaining bass caught in their nets, bass will be killed and discarded unnecessarily – for no conservation advantage; and at great cost to the many vessels which catch some bass. The solution lies in applying a bycatch over a longer period, say 6 months, which would even out the peaks and troughs and allow the vessel to retain a higher proportion of the bass caught.
It is frankly difficult to square the introduction of regulatory discards into the bass fishery, exactly at a time when all the rhetoric is about reducing discards across the EU.
This is not an argument against bringing bass back into a healthy conservation status: strong measures have already been put in place, including an increased minimum size and stringent catch limits. But scientists tell us that the effects of these measures, in terms of increased biomass, will take some time to work through. This is why hysterical over-reaction is best avoided.
The pressure to ban gill nets for fishing for bass is mainly coming from the recreational angling lobby, who have their own selfish reasons. Like many others, we are interested to hear how a 10 fish per month bag limit on recreational anglers could ever be enforced….
Skates and Rays
Managing skates and rays is certainly tricky. Species recognition can be poor and the TAC covers some 15 separate species. Things have been made worse in recent years by the Commission’s blunt approach to data-poor stocks, which has forced a series of year-on-year 20% reductions which has made the quota all but impossible to manage.
At the 11th hour, the Commission has circulated a paper suggesting that each individual species should have its own TAC. We are not sure that this is the right way to go. It is important to have some kind of understanding of the potential consequences before embarking on such a radical change.
Apart from anything else in is not right the member states and their fishing industries are ambushed by last minute changes – the example of small-eyed ray last year being a good example of how not to make fisheries legislation.
An NFFO team will be present throughout the whole Council, using every opportunity to guide decisions to the right outcomes. Meetings have been held, written submissions have been made, priorities clarified. We are now dependent on our minister and his officials to deliver.
Our team has been selected to give cover to all NFFO interests which include:
- Western waters
- North Sea
- Irish Sea
- External Waters
Leaving the EU
Longer term, the December Council will not be the fora which makes TAC decisions for the UK fleets. For the 100 or so stocks that we share with other countries new and different TAC decision making process will be required. Work is continuing within the Federation on this and the many other aspects of the UK’s departure from the EU. For the next couple of weeks however the focus will be the December Council