Five separate strands within the complex intertwined negotiations for fisheries agreements for 2022 are approaching their endgames. There seems to be a determination by all parties to avoid the extended, painful, process witnessed earlier this year which stalled agreements for 2021 until 5 months into the year to which they apply.
Those first negotiations can be seen as a trial of strength as the parties positioned themselves for the new fisheries world in which the UK is an independent coastal state, albeit one constrained by the provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. There seems to be a determination for all parties to settle down into a more predictable, manageable, pattern.
There was little surprise that talks between coastal states, the first set of negotiations out of the blocks, set TACS but failed to reach a sharing agreement on stocks like mackerel and blue whiting. A process has been set up to hopefully lay the foundations for a future agreement, although ultimately political heads will have to be knocked together if over-exploitation and stock decline on those pivotal stocks are to be avoided.
Trilateral negotiations between the UK/Norway and the EU look very close to conclusion on setting TACs for jointly managed stocks in the North Sea. At the heart of the negotiations have been mixed fishery considerations which have had to deal with a recruitment spike in North Sea haddock, a change in scientific perception which recommended a 237% increase in the whiting TAC, whilst simultaneously finding the right balance on cod between rebuilding the biomass and minimising discards and chokes.
A heated dispute between Norway and the EU on TAC and fleet shares for herring in the North Sea has again been a feature of the negotiations.
Separate bilateral negotiations between the UK and the EU, UK and Norway, UK and Faroes and EU and Norway have been proceeding in parallel. All look like crossing the finishing line in the next week or so. The 10th December is written into the TCA as the date by which the UK and EU must conclude fisheries negotiations for the following year and it looks like all parties have this deadline in mind.
UK and Norway, and UK and Faroes, talks last year failed to reach a fisheries agreement for 2021, leaving fleets on both sides to deal with sub-optimal fishing opportunities and access arrangements. There seems to be a determination by all to avoid a repeat of this collapse, and to avoid no agreement becoming the new normal. Both sides can be expected to fight hard for their interests, however, and the final outcome will inevitably be a compromise of some sort which will satisfy no one completely. The signs are that conditional reciprocal access arrangements will be reached for the demersal fisheries and that separate arrangements will apply to the pelagic fisheries. Steps to manage hake as a jointly managed stock in the future can also be expected to be part of the deal.
Nothing is Agreed
Whilst all of the negotiating strands are narrowing down to the final few issues, the old mantra that nothing is agreed ‘til everything is agreed applies.
Between the UK and the EU, different philosophical approaches to mixed fisheries in the Celtic Sea are in evidence. Whilst the EU adheres to the CFP’s formulaic, one-dimensional approach based on single stock advice, the UK, now outside the CFP is pressing for an approach that recognises the realities of mixed fisheries and choke risks. A realistic bycatch of cod is essential to avoid chokes. In the case of the UK fleets represents less than 0.5% of the value of total catch, but with the potential to choke an industry worth many millions on which fishing businesses and fishing communities depend.
Seabass remains a contentious area, with the fishing industry pressing for more progress in reducing the dead discards that are generated by the current bycatch rules.
Quota exchanges, which last year were held to ransom in the negotiations, causing damage to all sides, seem to have been resolved through an interim arrangement that permits exchanges initially brokered by industry organisations which looks likely to continue for 2022.
A huge amount of uncertainty surrounds the treatment of non-quota stocks – for England and Wales the landings of which are marginally more economically important than quota species. The Specialised Committee for Fisheries has so far limited itself to procedural matters, mainly because the Commission has not had a mandate from member states to enter into detailed discussions. What the agreed record says will be pivotal for the future of these stocks which range over some 200 species from the economically critical to the negligible.
If these stocks are to be managed in a rational, evidence-based, way in the future, full transparency about catches made by the respective fleets will be a fundamental precondition.
Whilst issues remain to be resolved in this set of annual negotiations, information of what is happening in the negotiating room remains limited. The signs are that rumour and speculation will shortly be replaced by a blizzard of numbers and detail when the agreed records are published. The detail of what has been agreed will shape the fortunes of fleets in the coming year. A fundamental flaw in the process (at least for the UK and EU sides) is the remoteness of the negotiations from those impacted by the decisions. A satisfactory way to integrate the fishing industry into the process has still to be resolved. The Norwegian Fishermen’s Association (Norges Fiskerlarg) has been an integral part of the Norwegian delegation for many years, bringing invaluable industry knowledge and insight to the process.
In the UK managing the relationship between devolved administrations, and in the EU the tensions between the Commission and member states undoubtedly present obstacles to a more transparent and inclusive approach to international negotiations. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, decisions that have such a direct and significant impact on fishing businesses and communities should not be made without their close involvement.