The last Fisheries Council in which the UK will participate as an EU member state concluded in the early hours of 19th December. It was dominated by issues relating to chokes in mixed fisheries, particularly those for which zero catch advice had been given. As expected, whilst some progress was made at the Brussels meeting, many difficult issues remain to be resolved in the New Year and beyond.
Fears that the Commission and Austrian Presidency would be deaf to the UK’s arguments because of Brexit, proved to be unfounded. It was not necessary, therefore for the UK to insist on a declaration reserving its position on the Council’s outcomes in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU in March. Nevertheless, the Commission’s consistent emphasis on presentation over practical implementation, will undoubtedly make it more difficult to reduce choke risks during 2019. An overemphasis on optics and a lack of understanding, or care, about practical implementation has been the hallmark of the CFP for many years.
Against this background, the UK has insisted that TAC decisions on choke stocks, should be kept under close review as next year progresses, to prepare the ground for rapid intervention as the need arises.
Chokes and Zero Catch Advice
The scale and location of chokes in mixed fisheries are not easy to predict.
Where chokes can be foreseen with absolute certainty, is where the scientific advice is for zero catch of a particular species, or where a country has no quota allocation for that particular species. This is the case for five important stocks, including Celtic Sea cod, Irish Sea whiting, West of Scotland cod and whiting and Western Approaches plaice. The approach finally adopted is to set the TAC at a level below current catches, to partially cover unavoidable bycatches, and to make up the gap though encouragement for member state to engage in international swaps and additional selectivity/avoidance measures. Member states without quota (notably Spain and Netherlands) would have first call on the reserved bycatch quota by offering swaps of other desirable quotas. This complicated and untested arrangement will apply from 1st January, but the UK has laid down markers that the level of TAC and the swapping arrangements require early review. This fits with the NFFO’s call for contingency planning because of the uncharted territory we are moving into after 1st January.
Some progress but not enough, was made in allowing fishermen to keep unavoidable catches of bass, rather than discard them dead. Maintaining momentum towards rebuilding the stocks, rightly remains a priority but nevertheless an opportunity was missed, especially in relation to unavoidable bycatch in the trawl fisheries. Increased catch limits and removal of the 1% bycatch constraint will certainly be welcomed by vessels using fixed gill nets. The main problem remains with the Commission’s insistence on the retention of the 1% bycatch limit for vessels using trawl gears. This will ensure that unacceptable amounts of bass will again be discarded next year. Nevertheless, the increase to 400kgs per two months, even within the 1% bycatch percentage, is a step in the right direction. As expected, bass has not been included under the landing obligation, for rather arcane legal reasons.
The elimination of targeted bass fisheries, from 2016, along with a range of other measures, including an increase in minimum landing size, has led to a huge reduction in fishing pressure on bass. Resultant improvements in the biomass are reflected in this year’s scientific advice.
The measures for 2019 are:
Vessels using demersal trawls, for unavoidable by‑catches not
exceeding 400 kilogrammes per two months and 1% of the weight of the total catches of marine organisms on board caught by that vessel in any single day;
(b) using seines, for unavoidable by‑catches not exceeding 210 kilogrammes per month and 1% of the weight of the total catches of marine organisms on board caught by that vessel in any single day;
(c) using hooks and lines, not exceeding 5.5 tonnes per vessel per year;
(d) using fixed gillnets for unavoidable by‑catches not exceeding 1.4 tonnes per vessel per year
Tony Delahunty, NFFO President and South East Committee Chairman
Mixed fortunes emerged from the Council for the South East. It is a hard blow to face a further 25% TAC reduction in Eastern Channel sole, against the background of deep cuts in previous years. On the other hand, the 10% increase in the TAC for skates and rays in area 7 will be welcome. Despite our efforts, it was not possible to secure an increase in the North Sea TAC, despite an abundance of thornback ray in the Thames and the limited number of alternative fishing opportunities. The high survival exemption for skates and rays means that over-quota catches of ray will be returned to the sea during 2019.
The relaxations in restrictions in the bass fishery will be welcome, although they fall far short of the balanced approach that should be in place at this stage in the recovery of the stock. More could and should have been done by the Council to reduce discards of bass caught as unavoidable bycatch, but despite the combined efforts of the UK France and Netherlands only limited progress was made.
Although Channel cod is not considered to be a choke risk in 2019, things can change very quickly with a fast growing, migratory species like cod. Given the UK’s ludicrously low share of the TAC, it will be important to be ready to intervene if signs appear that the fishery will be choked.
Ned Clark, Chairman of the NFFO North East Committee
The main North Sea TACs were, as usual, agreed within the context of EU Norway annual negotiations. Although a proposed 47% cut in the TAC for was averted, the 33% cut which was adopted will make cod the limiting species in the mixed fisheries, increasing the choke risk from medium to acute.
Whiting also faced reductions both through a cut to the TAC but also through a de minimis deduction. The Commission’s calculations were challenged and reduced from 40% to 6%.
Major chokes in the flatfish fisheries were averted by the expedient of removing TAC status from dab and providing a (conditional and temporary) exemption for skates and rays and plaice.
By making a fetish of managing stocks at maximum sustainable yield, rather than using it as a helpful signpost of progress to high average yields, the environmental NGOs marginalised themselves from most of the debates at Council and contented themselves with sniping from the sidelines. Ministers, and even the Commission, accept that MSY goal must be balanced with other CFP objectives, as well as the exigencies of practical fisheries management, and much of the discussion within in the Council was about achieving exactly that balance. There is no question of ignoring the science. It is a question of using the very best available science to inform complex, difficult and multi-faceted management decisions.
Farne Deeps nephrops is a very valuable natural resource for the communities on the North East coast and the species is the main economic driver for the local fleets. It is a relief that the fishery has now stabilised after a dip in the biomass and remedial measures.
Paul Trebilcock, Chief Executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation
“Some Progress but Big Challenges Ahead for 2019”
Full implementation of the EU’s landing obligation from the 1 January 2019, meant that more than ever before it was vital that ministers delivered sustainable, workable and effective outcomes for South-West Fishermen.
The UK Government team led by Defra minister, Lord Gardiner in the absence of UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice, were well briefed and committed. There was a clear understanding of our priorities, the challenges, and potential implications for South-West fishermen.
The Council outcomes contained some important gains for the South-West, including significant improvements in quotas like Western hake (increased 28%), megrim sole (increased by 47%) and rollover quotas for pollack and saithe in area 7.
Celtic Sea Cod (ICES area 7e-k)
The principle that zero catch advice could not be compatible with the landing obligation was quickly conceded by the Commission. If followed literally, zero catch advice in mixed fisheries would result in vessels being immediately choked and have to cease fishing in the Celtic Sea early in the year.
Ultimately agreement was reached around a package including:
- 48% reduction from 2018 TAC, to a level below that which would meet by-catch landings in 2018 by South-West fishermen
- A further 6% of the quota having to be made available for quota exchanges with member states that do not have a current quota allocation
- Quota exchanges and further selectivity measures (both technical and area based) during the first part of 2019 as ways of addressing the concerns raised.
This complicated and unsatisfactory outcome presents a potentially massive challenge for South-West fishermen in the year ahead.
In view of the problems ahead, the UK has already called for a review of the 2019 TAC for Celtic Sea cod early in the new-year. The reviewed TAC should reflect the landing statistics in 2018 as applied within the ICES Celtic Sea mixed fisheries model. An upward revision would go some way to mitigating the very real choke risk.
A welcome increase of 20% was secured but is still likely to be a significant choke risk.
It was made clear from the outset that CFPO members have been and will continue to work with scientists on selectivity improvements and enhanced data collection but this multi-faceted problem will not be solved without a realistic level quota being available for South-West fishermen.
Sole 7e, 7hjk and 7fg
There were mixed outcomes for these important South-West flat fish quotas.
7e sole quota continues to improve with a 3% increase reflecting the health of this stock.
7hjk stock stability was reflected in a rollover of the 2018 quota.
There was less positive news on 7fg sole with the Commission’s original proposal of a 9% reduction in relation to the 2018 quota was agreed, despite clear arguments within the MSY framework to mitigate this reduction led by the Belgian delegation.
As with Celtic Sea cod, the principle that a zero quota advice was not compatible with the landing obligation was quickly conceded by the Commission. If it had been followed it would have resulted in vessels being immediately choked and have to cease fishing in ICES area 7hjk.
Ultimately, agreement was reached around a 15% reduction from 2018 TAC, to a level below that which would meet by-catch landings in 2018 by South-West fishermen.
This is further compounded by 6% of the quota having to be made available for quota exchanges with member states that do not have a current quota allocation.
The Commission pointed towards quota exchanges and developing further selectivity measures (both technical and area based) during the first part of 2019 as ways of addressing the concerns raised.
An increase of 5% on the 2018 quota was a reflection of stable catches experienced by fishermen and was welcomed.
The prohibition on landing common skate and restrictions on small-eyed ray landings remain in place and continue to be a frustration that once again was not addressed.
Some recognition of improving stock status was reflected in the final agreement:
However the final agreement did not take on board or reflect the strong and credible arguments put forward by the NFFO to alleviate the pointless discarding of dead bass in the ultra-mixed trawl fisheries in the South-west. The 1% by-catch provision that remains in place from 2018 will see a continuation of discarding of unavoidable dead by-catch of bass with little or no effect on mortality of bass in these fisheries.
This was a big disappointment but discussions have already begun with DEFRA on how to address this going forward both in terms of re-visiting this during 2019 and of course in the post Brexit era.
Alan McCulla Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation
The EU’s December 2018 News Net was a historic occasion. Another step towards the EU’s goal of managing fish stocks to a level defined around the principle of Maximum Sustainable Yield. Negotiations in the context of the full implementation of the EU’s Landing Obligation or discard ban. Finally, BREXIT – and the last December Fisheries Council at which the United Kingdom delegation would play a full part.
ANIFPO/Sea Source has attended every one of the year end Councils since December 1993 – 26 in total. Whilst the memory bank doesn’t recall the detail of everyone one of them, the majority do register for the wrong reasons – a succession of decisions that have resulted in dramatic reductions in many of the quotas available to all British fishermen, including those from Northern Ireland fishermen in the Irish Sea. The list of negatives is too long to mention here; quota cuts further exacerbated by the Hague Preference and cod recovery closures to name a few.
The irony is not lost that since the BREXIT vote, cuts to the Irish Sea’s main whitefish species have stalled and at least to some small extent been reversed, a trend that continued at this week’s negotiations in Brussels.
Of course in advance of the meeting signals around some of the quota figures had been loud and clear. Industry representatives, like officials were eager to minimise the issues tabled at the Council to enable discussion to focus on the critical matter of the discard ban, which for the Irish Sea was focused on whiting and the potential this has to choke the targeted fishery for prawns.
As we leave Brussels and count down the days left to BREXIT one question is will we be back in Brussels this time next year? The answer, which of course remains subject to a deal, would seem to be yes. Given the politics around the subject seem to be changing almost on a daily basis, who knows what the next twelve months will bring? But assuming that there is a plan that sticks, then the UK will at least be consulted and have observer status at the Fisheries Council in December 2019. Any meaningful change should come in 2020, as we look forward to the end of the Implementation Period and the UK becoming an independent coastal state. As the only part of the United Kingdom with a land frontier with the EU, a frontier that extends seawards, our unique geographic location is set to present further complications ahead. From 1 January 2021 we should begin to see real changes, but who knows? No Deal, any deal – a week, even a day is a short time in politics.
As 2018 draws to an end, we have just seen the release of the Government’s consultation on future Immigration Policy. This will be one of the focuses of our attention in the New Year. After all, without crew there is no one to man our fishing vessels – the sea of opportunities that beckons post Brexit could be lost to many coastal communities. Welfare of all our crews be they local, European or non-EEA is paramount and to all of them, especially those who are working away from home this Christmas we wish them a Very Happy Christmas and Peaceful New Year.
NFFO Chairman, Andrew Pascoe
This was my first exposure to the legendary all-night Fisheries Council. As a working fisherman, I was amazed by the intricacy of all the different elements of the final deal, but it seems to me that there is a huge gulf between the design and shaping of the rules in Brussels and where the impact the measures adopted are actually felt – in the wheelhouse and deck of fishing vessels. In particular, I cannot believe that anyone exposed to witnessing the waste of bass caught as an unavoidable bycatch being discarded week after week would allow this waste to continue.
The problem of choke risks generated by the landing obligation was a strand which ran through the Council from beginning to end. It is baffling to me that the CFP has got to this late stage in this flagship policy and is still patching together ad hoc solutions to how it will be implemented in practise.
I was hugely impressed by the Defra team, from Lord Gardiner, pushed into the hot seat at short notice, through to the committed and hard-working officials and scientists who supported him.
If we find ourselves in a transitional arrangement after March, we may find ourselves back in Brussels next December, but without a vote and without a seat at the table. That is a concern. Although this will only last for the 2020 fishing year, there are obvious dangers and it will be important to guard against them. By autumn 2020, we should be negotiating as an independent coastal state, with all that that profound legal change entails.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the Federation’s members, its friends and allies, the very best Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.
The NFFO team in Brussels this year was:
Bill Brock SWFPO and South East
Ned Clark North East
Matthew Cox, Pelagic
Tony Delahunty, South East
Jim Evans, Wales
Judith Farrell, Pelagic
Andrew Locker, North Sea
Arnold Locker, North Sea
Alan McCulla, Northern Ireland
Linda McCall, Northern Ireland
Andrew Pascoe,NFFO Chairman and Cornwall
Jim Portus, South West
Chloe Rogers, North Sea and External Waters
Jane Sandell, North Sea and External Waters
Paul Trebilcock, Cornwall
Barrie Deas, Chief Executive
At the time of going to press, we are waiting
for the definitive list of TACs and quota changes.