Fisheries Debate: NFFO Briefing Note


In advance of the annual round of quota negotiations, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has prepared the following briefing note for MPs.

Discard Ban

The EU landings obligation represents a major threat to the great progress that has been made in recent years to put our fisheries on a sustainable footing. This is not because progressively moving towards the elimination of discards is a bad thing in itself but rather because of the way that the EU has gone about it. With no meaningful impact assessment, pitifully little has been done to understand how this, top-down, media inspired policy will be implemented.

The most serious aspect of the landings obligation is its potential to “choke” mixed fisheries; meaning that the exhaustion of one (potentially minor) quota would require vessels to tie up for the rest of the year, foregoing their main economic quotas. This could be disastrous yet we have yet to hear how chokes will be avoided. The tools and instruments currently available (quota flexibilities and exemptions) contribute but do not add up to a comprehensive solution.

This is of critical importance as so much hinges on it.

Fortunately we have been able to secure a degree of phasing and so are not faced with a Big Bang in 2016. However, 2017 and 2018 is a different story. It is going to take a great deal of work and political will to find a way through the massive series of problems created by an ego-driven chef and an opportunist Commissioner. The whole irony is that in most fisheries where the discards had been problem great progress had already been made in tackling it before Hugh’s Fishfight arrived on the scene. For example, in the North Sea round fish fishery for cod, haddock and whiting, the absolute level of discards had been reduced by 90% over the last 20 years; and progress was still being made. The other noteworthy statistic is that around 80% of EU discards were of only two species – plaice and dab.

The EU’s blundering policy, supported it has to be said, by UK fisheries ministers, has the capacity to derail our fisheries and put us back decades if not handled very sensitively from here on in.

Scientific Advice and Ministers’ Responsibility to Manage Fisheries

Jockeying for position in the run up to decisions on quotas for 2016 has already begun. The Council of Ministers is sometimes criticised for departing from the scientific recommendations on quotas. It is worth examining this claim because it’s frequently used to imply that ministers, under pressure from a powerful fishing lobby, duck their environmental responsibilities and are therefore directly responsible for stock depletion.

Taking a broad view, if it is true that the Commission and the Council of Ministers routinely set quotas that are unsustainable, it is a little difficult to explain how our fisheries are doing so well. At the annual State of the Stocks meeting, in Brussels, the Chairman of the ICES Advisory Committee, provided the definitive overview:

“Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen a general decline in fishing mortality in the Northeast Atlantic* and the Baltic Sea. The stocks have reacted positively to the reduced exploitation and we’re observing growing trends in stock sizes for most of the commercially important stocks. For the majority of stocks, it has been observed that fishing mortality has decreased to a level consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – meaning levels that are not only sustainable but will also deliver high long term yields.”

(Our emphasis)

Eskild Kirkegaard,

Chair of the Advisory Committee,

International Council for Exploration of the Seas

This is an exceptionally important statement, not just because it was made by the authoritative international body with responsibility for assessing our fish stocks, but because it signals quite unambiguously that, as an industry, we are already on track to deliver high sustainable yields (maximum sustainable yield, in the jargon). There are of course individual stocks that buck these general trends and it is important to address the reasons for this. But there is no mistaking the signal coming from the scientific advice: after many years of difficulties and sacrifice, we are harvesting our stocks at a sustainable level that will deliver high quality food to the table in the long term. That is really something to celebrate.

Ministers’ Responsibilities

But turning to why quotas are sometimes set by ministers at levels different from the scientific recommendations: Is this irresponsibility, or are there justifiable reasons for this departure?

Essentially there are three main reasons why the quotas adopted might not align with the scientific advice:

The first relates to the fact that the scientific advice is for the most part provided on a single species basis. However, many species are caught in mixed fisheries which capture a range of species in the same gear. Cod, haddock and whiting for example are often caught together, although the ratios between the species can vary considerably from trip to trip, and even haul to haul. This means that a judgement must be made by fisheries managers on where to set the individual species quotas to secure the optimum outcome across all of the species caught. Sometimes this will mean setting an individual quota higher than would be the case on a single species basis; but the converse can be true: where individual quotas are set quotas are set lower than the single stock advice in order to reduce pressure on another species in the group.

Another reason why ministers might wish to set quotas higher than the single stock advice is for socio-economic reasons. Often this is related to timing. Rebuilding a biomass over two years rather than one year can make a huge difference for the livelihoods of the fishermen dependent on that stock but will mean that the same result is achieved over a slightly longer timeframe. Eastern Channel sole is a good example of this at the moment. ICES are obliged to provide their quota advice in relation to achieving maximum sustainable yield within the following year. The choice for managers therefore is a drastic reduction in quota in one year, or a more modest reduction spread over a slightly longer period. The scientific projections suggest that both options will deliver the biomass to maximum sustainable yield within the legally set timeframe (2020); but the mix of small-scale fleets and larger vessels dependent on this stock are more likely to maintain their viability under the second option. So ministers might decide to depart from the short-term advice secure in the knowledge that over the slightly longer term, the biomass targets will be reached.

Finally, given the public focus on discards in recent years, it is not unnatural that ministers will want to take into account when setting quotas whether their decisions will increase or reduce discards. The quota for North Sea cod has been set towards the upper end of the scientific catch options in recent years exactly in order to avoid wasting the resource by generating discards in mixed fisheries. The biomass has continued to build steadily.

All of this means that although quotas are fundamentally set in relation to the individual stock scientific advice, fisheries managers (in this case the Commission, the Council of Ministers and where relevant Norway) have a management responsibility that is broader than blindly following the unrefined scientific recommendations. In this ministers are acting to meet the legal requirements of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy: “The CFP shall ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long-term and are managed in a way that is consistent with the objectives of achieving economic, social and employment benefits, and of contributing to the availability of food supplies. “ Article 2:1 of the CFP Basic Regulation EU/1380/13.

The Challenge of Managing Mixed Fisheries

There is no doubt that managing fisheries which exploit more than a single species presents a range of extra challenges. In any given year the abundance of individual species within a mixed fishery assemblage might be going in divergent directions. It is also true that management decisions on quotas are also going to be more demanding in future. Fisheries managers will be legally required both to set quotas consistent with achieving maximum sustainable yield, and at the same time facilitate the progressive introduction of a landings obligation. Finding some way to bring coherence to setting individual quotas in a mixed fishery under these conditions is not for the faint hearted.

ICES has developed the concept of fishing mortality ranges to address this situation. Maximum sustainable yield is not necessarily best understood as a single point at the peak of the yield curve but an area at the top of the curve. Interpreting MSY in this way provides fisheries managers with a degree of flexibility to balance the quotas set for individual species caught within a mixed fishery. Coherence between TACs will be particularly important in the context of the landings obligation because vessels will no longer be permitted to discard a species for which the quota is exhausted.

F ranges are likely to be an important tool in the future but it is highly unlikely that they will on their own be able to completely resolve the problem of chokes under the landings obligation. Some NGOs have advocated the lowest common denominator solution: They argue that fishing should stop when the first quota in a mixed fishery is exhausted. Given that in many mixed fisheries there are many small bycatch quotas in place that could prevent fishing vessels, nations or the whole EU, from catching its main economic quotas, this would represent the Armageddon option. It would also be contrary to Article 2 of the CFP Regulation, as discussed above.

It is clear that if we want socially and economically, as well as an environmentally, sustainable fisheries, something is going to have to give. One idea would be to group minor species under a single quota heading, such as is already done in the Norwegian sector under ‘Norway others’. Care would have to be taken to prevent unacceptable over-exploitation of any individual species within the group and careful monitoring would be required. But this would be a way of avoiding chokes whilst still managing the exploitation rate of the stocks concerned. Another, more radical, suggestion would be to remove TAC status from a number of stocks that are not targeted as such but taken as bycatch. Again, monitoring the conservation status of these stocks and putting in place additional measures where necessary would be a necessary corollary of removing TAC status.

Finally, as fishing pressure has been progressively reduced, interspecies predation has increased in overall significance and will increasingly have to be taken into account in the future. In the North Sea this kind of natural mortality is already more significant that fishing mortality. All this highlights some of the issues currently being debated on how to best manage mixed fisheries in the future. None of this is easy. There is no silver bullet that removes the complexity inherent in managing mixed fisheries. We have some of the most complex fisheries in the world: multi-species, multi-gear and multi-jurisdiction.

NGO agenda

The task, however, is being made more difficult by a top-down agenda pursued by the NGO community. A steady determination to use Europe’s co-decision process to impose a rigid legal framework on the management of mixed fisheries has become evident. This is currently generating a great deal of heat in relation to the Baltic multi-annual management plan. This is important to us because the Baltic plan will be followed shortly after by proposals for North Sea and Western Waters mixed fishery plans. The NGOs want:

  • To make biomass targets mandatory. However the CFP already requires the exploitation rate to be set at a level that provides a good probability that a low fishing mortality rate will deliver high biomass. The concept of biomass MSY is regarded as scientific illiteracy by mainstream fisheries scientists because there are so many other factors at work in the marine environment that it is not possible to guarantee that biomass targets would be achieved.
  • To oblige ministers to use the lowest common denominator in setting TACs (in other words under-exploiting the main economic species in order to reduce exploitation on a minor bycatch species). If taken literally and put into practice this would have catastrophic social and economic consequences for fleets and ports. It would also be contrary to Article 2 of the CFP basic Regulation which explicitly requires the Commission and ministers to secure employment, economic and social benefits of sustainable exploitation of fish stocks.
  • To remove some of the flexibility in setting quotas in relation to F ranges suggested by ICES: This would of course undermine the point of using ranges in the first place.
  • More broadly, to constrain the jurisdiction of ministers to set TACs at an appropriate level taking all the factors mentioned above into account. (this issue has been referred to the European Court which will be asked to interpret the meaning of the Lisbon Treaty on this issue).
  • Essentially these tactics, if successful, would reduce the scope for the kind of adaptive, pragmatic but scientifically informed, management of mixed fisheries that is required and replace it by an inflexible legal framework. This is all very unhelpful and dangerous not least because of the influence the NGOs have within the European Parliament.

Weird Timing

It is more than a little bizarre that this battle has emerged now, at a time after all the hard work has been done and 80% (by tonnage) of our stocks are already at MSY. Leaving aside the ongoing dispute over who has jurisdiction to set quotas, the debate about MSY is now focused on how to harvest the 5% or 10% at the top of the yield curve. This happy situation contrasts with the extreme rhetoric being used in the debate that would suggest that what is at stake is nothing less than the exposure of European fisheries to crass over-exploitation, stock depletion and potential collapse. But as we have seen above no less an authority than ICES has already explained that because of the measures already taken, we have already travelled the journey, not just to sustainable fishing, but to a position where we can deliver high long-term yields.

Just why the NGOs and their allies in the European Parliament have chosen to take this adversarial and legalistic approach, rather than celebrate the progress we have made, is another question which we will analyse elsewhere; but in an already complex area their public position is, to say the least, unhelpful.

Bass Requires Action not Overreaction

The Federation writes to the Minister on the need for a proportionate response to bass management.

Dear Minister

We would make four points as we move towards the December Council and critically important decisions on bass.

  1. The emerging scientific advice on bass indicates that successive below-average year classes and an overall fishing mortality that is too high, requires remedial action.
  2. Landings statistics make plain that a very large number of fishermen, using a range of gears, depend on bass for a significant part of their annual income.
  3. The history of the CFP is littered with examples where clumsy measures have made things worse rather than better.
  4. The Commission’s Proposal, which amounts in effect to a moratorium on bass, is driven by the legally binding but wholly arbitrary requirement to reach MSY by 2016 or 2020 at the latest.

Against this background we consider that it is important that the UK takes a measured and proportionate position at the December Council.

A moratorium would have devastating social and economic consequences. The science on bass gives cause for concern; but it does not justify overreaction. Catch limits, an increased minimum conservation reference size and bag limits have been in place for under a year; it takes time for the effect of measures to work through.

Against this difficult background, we urge you to position the UK to:

  1. Reject the Commission’s proposal.
  2. Support proportionate step-wise measures – but only after the efficacy of those measures that have already been put in place have been properly evaluated.
  3. Recognise the multi-faceted dimension of the bass fishery and therefore the need for measures tailored to the specifics of each fishery.
  4. Take account of the potential for unintended consequences, not least the scope to generate a significant discard problem where none existed.

On this latter point, it is important to learn the lessons of the recent past, where ministers have not infrequently agreed eye-catching blanket measures that deliver much less than hoped for. The obvious example is North Sea cod, ministers’ actions resulted in a dramatic increase in discards, which can only have impeded recovery. A more intelligent and effective approach only emerged later. We think that this is an important lesson that has significance for bass.

The most important step to be taken in the present circumstances is to establish an effective dialogue between fishermen who rely on bass for their livelihoods, fisheries scientists and fisheries administrators as to what measures would work and which not work in their fleet sector. Because of the complexity of the bass fishery it is metier specific measures that are required and the old discredited blanket knee-jerk carries a risk of making things worse.

Tony Delahunty

NFFO Chairman

Pew Response Fails to Address EU Fishing Sector Concerns Over Misleading Information

It is disappointing that your response fails to address the issues that we have raised. We drew attention to the startling divergence between the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) view and Pew’s claims about

fishing pressure and the state of the stocks off North Western Europe.

To reiterate, ICES is unambiguous:

“Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen a general decline in fishing mortality in the Northeast Atlantic and the Baltic Sea. The stocks have reacted positively to the reduced exploitation and we’re observing growing trends in stock sizes for most of the commercially important stocks. For the majority of stocks, it has been observed that fishing mortality has decreased to a level consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – meaning levels that are not only sustainable but will also deliver high long term yields.”

Eskild Kirkegaard, Chair, ICES Advisory Committee

By contrast, Turning the Tide, makes the assertion that:

  • Fishing in recent decades, in pursuit of food and profit, off North West Europe has dramatically expanded
  • Calls by scientists and environmentalists to reduce fishing pressure have been ignored
  • Many fish stocks collapsed throughout the region
  • The reformed CFP should prove a successful first step in restoring and maintaining the health of the fisheries and fish stocks

Both descriptions cannot be true.

It is not clear from your letter whether you consider that ICES science is wrong, or inadequate, or whether you think there has been a dramatic recovery in fish stocks since March. We still remain in the dark about your motivations for publishing such a misleading report.

The above graph representing 50 stocks is taken from ICES and illustrates that from the year 2000 there has been a dramatic reduction in fishing mortality in the North East Atlantic and this accounts for ICES’ conclusions that we are not only fishing sustainably but are on track to deliver high long term yields (MSY).

We look forward to your response.

Javier Garat Pim Visser

President of Europêche President of EAPO

Death Throes of the Drift Net Ban

A rather bureaucratic exchange of letters between Commissioner Vella and the Chairman of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee signals the demise of the ill-founded proposal to ban small-scale drift nets. The proposal has been hanging around for the best part of two years waiting for someone to finish it off.

A rather bureaucratic exchange of letters between Commissioner Vella and the Chairman of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee signals the demise of the ill-founded proposal to ban small-scale drift nets. The proposal has been hanging around for the best part of two years waiting for someone to finish it off.

The proposal to ban small-scale drift nets emerged at the tail end of the previous Commissioner’s period of tenure before she left to take up a highly paid position with an international NGO. Her going-away present to the fishing industry has been a huge embarrassment to her successor who now is keen to bury it with as little fuss as possible.

A poorly considered, top-down, blanket measure, published with next to no consultation, the proposed ban was a reminder that the reformed CFP still has the capacity to make clumsy and frankly, stupid, legislation. If adopted it would have spelt the end of a significant number of sustainable small-scale fisheries.

The NFFO led a delegation of small-scale drift net fishermen from various parts of the UK to meet the Commission in September 2014 to argue strongly against a ban. The North Sea Advisory Council shortly afterwards adopted a very good paper, prepared by RSPB, opposing a blanket ban and recommending a case by case approach by regional member states.

Member states voiced uneasiness in Council and it was clear that the proposal was going nowhere.

The Commissioner’s letter now suggests that any issues relating to drift nets could be dealt with within the context of the new Technical Conservation framework, which we expect will emerge shortly and which will provide scope for a regionalised approach. The

“current drift net proposal would …. be overtaken by this new proposal, said the Commissioner.”

Tony Delahunty, Chairman of the NFFO, said in statement,

“It was vital that we won this one. The Commission’s blanket proposal had no supporting evidence and emerged to address problems in the Mediterranean. It was the worst example of inappropriate, top-down, measures that we had seen for a while. We can’t relax completely but it is very important that we have successful defeated this proposal and this letter is an important marker. And in the meantime small-scale drift-net fishermen can continue to fish sustainably.”

A Diverse Fleet

Fisherman David Warwick explains why the diversity in the British fleet is one of the industry’s greatest strengths.

I’ve been in the industry for 27 years, the last 19 as the skipper of my own boat, the Valhalla. She’s 10.5 metres long and there’s just two of us in the crew. My catch is quite mixed, picking up cod and haddock, as well as whiting, lemon sole, plaice, cuttlefish, monkfish and squid. Fishing out of Mevagissey and landing our fish in Plymouth means that we regularly come into contact with boats of all sizes – and we can see just how valuable each type is to the industry.

You often hear people attacking big boats for being ‘unsustainable’ but the truth is it doesn’t matter how big your vessel is – sustainability is about how you fish, not size.

Of course there are quota shortages for small and inshore fishermen, but I’ve heard the argument for reallocating quota from big boats to boats such as mine, and put simply it just doesn’t make sense. I wouldn’t be able to catch the shoals they target if I tried.

Give me quota for Atlanto-Scandian Herring and there’s not a chance in hell my little boat could safely make the trip to reach those grounds, let alone land enough to make it worth my while. Bigger boats are far more suited to fishing on the open sea and that’s the fact of the matter, having a big boat fleet is also really important when it comes to landing our fish. A lot of people don’t realise the scale of the port infrastructure required, and how many employees are needed, to efficiently process all the fish that are landed. These businesses rely on boats regularly landing a large volume of fish and if they aren’t getting that they tend to pack up and leave – which can really damage the businesses of small fishermen. This happened in Lowestoft in the mid-1990s – the large trawlers left and took the port facilities with them as they just couldn’t operate sustainably anymore. Fishermen like me were badly hit, with many having to switch ports or simply tie their boats up. We all need to work together to ensure that our industry is resilient – and diversity is one of the most important ways of doing this.

I am a proud British fisherman; you just have to look at the history of our fleets, and the quality and variety of fish we land to see that it sets us apart from many others. We’ve built that reputation for quality over the years and it’s great that being British still holds some weight in the international arena. I’d hate to see our fleet become divided and cut down, and our reputation along with it.

In over 25 years in the fishing industry I’ve seen a lot of changes and learnt a lot of lessons – and one thing still sticks out in my mind, big and small boats need each other for the UK to have a balanced fishing industry. Certain environmental groups claim to be supporting small scale fishermen against big boats but they clearly don’t understand the importance of the interdependence between different sectors of the British fleet.