The EU's Common Fisheries Policy is set for reform

by Jan 14, 2011 No Comments
A look at the upcoming reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy and what it means to the Scottish fleet

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall © Channel FourBuckets and buckets of cod cover the deck of the fishing vessel. When the fishermen see this laid out, they can’t quite believe their eyes and are visibly distressed by what is in front of them. The dead cod can’t be taken back to shore with them. If they were to do this, they would face penalties for exceeding their strict cod quota, set centrally in Brussels. Their only choice is to throw the fish over the side.

“I think I saw 90 plus per cent of all that beautiful fish go over the side, dead,” a shocked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said after witnessing the practice of discarding the fish, which happens in the North Sea on a daily basis. His recent Channel 4 show Hugh’s Fish Fight has brought fish discards to the attention of the British public for the first time and people are shocked by what they have learned. At the time of going to press, 96,807 people had signed up to Fearnley- Whittingstall’s campaign calling for the “senseless waste of food” to end.

For Scottish fishermen, publicity on the issue is welcome. At a time when it is extremely hard to make ends meet from fishing, tipping good and saleable stock over the side of the boat is akin to throwing money away. Also, the industry has been committed to working on methods to reduce discards and increase sustainability for many years and there is a widespread feeling amongst it that these efforts are not being adequately rewarded by the EU. With the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) due to be reformed, momentum for change is building.

For Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead, the issue of discards has been something he has focused a huge amount of effort on over the past four years and he feels that anything that can be done to make progress is worth a try.

“One of my priorities since I came to office was to help tackle the scandal of discards because across Europe’s seas there’s over a million tonnes of fish thrown dead back into the sea. It’s an environmental waste, an economic waste and in Scotland we’ve helped put tackling discards at the top of the European agenda. So for celebrity chefs to play their part in trying to highlight that scandal is good news and I know the public feel very strongly about it,” he says.

It is estimated that about half of all fish caught in the North Sea is thrown back dead. Much of this is cod, which is classed as endangered and subject to a recovery plan.

Current quotas on cod are low, meaning that for Scottish fishermen the once lucrative species now only contributes around £17m to the industry’s total economic worth of £357m. However, as cod stocks swim in mixed fisheries containing more than one species of fish, once the quota, which is based on scientific data on the abundance of a species, is exceeded fishermen must still continue fishing in order to fulfil their quotas for other species. This is where problems arise, explains Dr Mireille Thom, marine policy officer at WWF Scotland.

“The problem is always more complicated in the case of mixed fisheries. Although everyone thinks it is a waste to throw good fish back into the water, there are no easy solutions even although that is the problem that the catch quotas are trying to tackle,” she says.

“Not all whitefish stocks are in danger. But with cod, haddock and whiting, the situation is certainly worrying. The thing is that there are measures in place and for some reason they’re not being as effective as they should.

So we are concerned about the state of the stocks and also of the time that it takes sometimes to just take the measures, apply them and for the time that it takes to rebuild the stocks.” Much of the work being undertaken by the Scottish fleet to reduce discards has so far been initiated by the Scottish Government rather than the EU, and Scotland has a good reputation as a result of its efforts. Measures include looking at the behavioural differences in fish species, using these to create nets that certain fish are likely to be able to escape from and rewarding fishermen who use these methods through the Conservation Credits Scheme.

Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee have also worked to create Marine Protected Areas that protect fish and coral and Real Time Closures which close off 15 square miles of sea for three weeks if a high abundance of cod is found to be in the area have also been used since 2007.

Last year alone, there were around 200 Real Time Closures, highlighting the importance of having such a scheme in place.

In addition to these measures, the EU has agreed to an expansion of the catch quota scheme, which was piloted by 17 Scottish fishing vessels last year. It will now be allowed to expand to include around 40 vessels and these will be allowed to land all the cod caught once their original quota has been filled in return for having their boats fitted with monitoring equipment. Catches will be monitored to ensure that the rules are not taken advantage of and £400,000 is being provided by the Scottish Government to help participating vessels buy the equipment needed to take part.

Lochhead is positive about the catch quota scheme and what it may one day be able to do for the industry, however, he acknowledges that it has not been without its problems.

“Because it involves putting cameras on the vessel, it has been a huge cultural change for those involved because clearly if we’re going to give fishermen a reward for not discarding, we have to have evidence that they’re not discarding because otherwise you could have a flawed system,” he says.

“Some other countries may not choose to go down that road because it involves quite a high level of documenting of the fishery,” he explains, adding that while fishermen who took part in the original pilot were sceptical at first, it has been largely successful so far.

“It is a change of fishing patterns and behaviour, so I think now that some boats have done it for a year they’ve found they can make it work and they’re now pleased they can go out to sea, make a living and not be forced to discard.” But without more EU support for these sustainability schemes, patience in the Scottish industry is running out. Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive Bertie Armstrong says that the reform of the CFP must reward fishermen for their efforts.

“There is a problem in that there is not a single fisherman that doesn’t recognise that his future depends on sustainable fish stocks – that’s a given. On the other hand, every individual fisherman has a business and is confronted also with paying his mortgage and his crew and retaining ownership of his boat.

“That is a very strong pressure indeed and if we find that we get to the point where commercial viability is threatened, and with the downturns in opportunity next year and the difficulties caused by sticking within the rules as they presently stand, then people will be very commercially challenged and that is the danger zone for losing the support of the fleet for any measures other than those which will simply help them commercially subsist,” he says.

Armstrong sees the reform of the CFP as the perfect opportunity to rebalance the current situation and believes that Scottish work on sustainability should influence this. “We’ve done all we can do now in experimenting with what’s possible with regard to behaviour change; we now need changes to the rules of governing mixed fisheries and move away from a single species approach towards a more generalised ecosystem approach to fishing opportunity,” he says.
Time for a sea change
“We’re at the edge of credibility of schemes unless the fishermen can see by way of practical demonstration that this will make a difference to a) sustainability and b) their commercial sustainability.” A reformed CFP will come into operation at the beginning of 2013 and the debate has already been kick-started following the publication of a Green Paper by the European Commission (EC) in 2009. The first proposals will be published in July 2011.

The paper was regarded as a good start, as it did not rule any options in or out although there is no indication of what proposals will be accepted or rejected at this stage.

However, Armstrong feels that the Scottish Government’s consultation on the proposals was mistimed, impacting on Scotland’s ability to influence the process.

“[The Scottish Government Consultation] made its final report in June 2010. It made an interim report in September 2009 in preparation for the response to the Green Paper. But the whole process, which was meant to influence the future of fisheries management, was done under a timetable that missed the boat. So that’s rather sad,” he says.

Already, a general consensus has developed in Scotland that the future of fisheries management should take a regional approach rather than involving all EU member states in discussions – a lengthy and complex practice, which has been criticised for allowing EU member states who do not have a commercial interest in fishing using their influence in negotiations to get what they want in other areas.

“Having decisions taken closer to home is absolutely vital,” says Lochhead. “Many of the problems we have with the current system is ill-fitting regulations imposed on Scotland by Brussels which we then have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to unwind after fisheries negotiations and until these negotiations themselves are designed locally, with the input of our fishermen who have to live with them, then that’s going to continue.

Decentralisation is a huge step forward.” However, while there is much agreement on decentralisation it would not be the best option for the pelagic, single species industry and chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association Ian Gatt explains that this would make matters more complicated in his section of the industry. While he is not against regionalisation for mixed fisheries, he is hopeful that CFP reform will be mindful of the fact that this would make life difficult for single species fisheries.

“All our negotiations are taking place, apart from one, in an international forum. So for us, in relation to that the CFP while not perfect and there’s lots of things could be done internally in relation to making it easier to swap in-house, etc, but the main thing it does provide for us is the mechanism that once the fish has been negotiated through the international forum, you need some sort of mechanism to go and divide the cake up,” Gatt says.

Another difference between the management of single species and mixed fisheries is that after many years, single species fisheries have been able to develop long-term management plans – which Gatt explains is a big step in species conservation.

Thom says that WWF would like to see these plans introduced to mixed fisheries to replace annual wrangles at the EC December Fisheries Council with a system that takes a longer-term view. “We should have a longterm management plan formed on the basis of fisheries so that we can really manage a whole unit and instead of meeting every end of year and then arguing over a few tons and generally for more fish than what is recommended by scientific advice, to keep to the objectives of the plan,” she says.

“We need regionalisation, that’s imperative and to have that will be a major breakthrough in the management of fisheries in Europe.” Rather than simply concentrating on methods to reduce discards, Professor Callum Roberts, a marine biologist at the University of York who specialises in human impacts on marine ecosystems, believes that it is now time to ban the practice outright with penalties for those who break the rules.

“There should be an outright discarding ban in the reform of the CFP. I think that it’s sensible on scientific grounds, it’s sensible on social grounds, it’s sensible for the stocks,” he says.

“It’s immoral to throw away such good food, it’s not sensible to expend all that energy catching things that you then chuck away, and if we don’t record what we’ve caught then we simply won’t have good information on the mortality rates on the fish stocks and therefore we don’t know what the state of the stock is as accurately as we need to.” While he describes himself as “agnostic” about the issue of regionalisation, Roberts says that there is growing evidence of the need to restrict the fishing fleet.

“At the moment, there are some limits on fishing effort – restrictions on days at sea, for example. Those all have to become more stringent if we continue with the present fleet sizes and we’re expecting to limit the amount of fish taken to a level that’s sustainable by the stocks,” he says, adding: “What we can’t do is replace one system that’s bad with another that’s also flawed whereby if you let people keep everything they catch, then if we allow them to catch too much then that’s not going to make the problem of over-fishing go away.” And of course, there is another pressing problem that the EC must try to deal with in the reform and that is the problem of what can be done when a fishing nation outwith the EU refuses to accept their allocated quota. At the end of last year, a disagreement with Iceland and the Faroe Islands broke out when both countries decided to ignore the scientifically based mackerel quota.

Iceland upped its quota by 25 per cent while the Faroe Islands tripled theirs. Talks broke down and for the first time ever, the EU is now threatening sanctions.

Gatt says that while the mackerel stock is doing well, two or three years of fishing on this scale would tip it into the danger zone.

He is pleased that the EU is taking action, although critical of the time this has taken.

“We’re part of Europe and we can’t get away from that fact. And it seems to me that the rules within the European club certainly allows for dealing with any member state stepping out of line.” He adds: “What’s abundantly clear to us is that us being part of the club, you’d expect there’d be some protectionism from external forces having effect on your businesses. And we see what Faroes and Iceland have been doing and up to now, the commission has been, I would say, fairly powerless – there’s not rules in play to actually deal with people who are affecting the lives of the people in the club and I think that’s something that radically needs to change or at least be looked at and see how this can be addressed in future.” Gatt suggests that the matter should be looked at as part of Iceland’s EU candidacy, and although this may seem like a drastic measure, he says that there needs to be an understanding of the implications of Iceland’s actions on other countries before they can gain a seat round the table.

The future of the Scottish fishing industry is by no means set in stone and success or failure will continue to depend on actions taken to preserve fish stocks. Roberts says that learning from the experiences of other fishing nations is important, pointing to the experiences of Canada in the 1990s as a particular example. While science looking at the abundance of fish stocks has been criticised for underestimating cod numbers, Roberts describes it as “pretty good” and says that the Canadian experience would show that going against the scientific evidence can have devastating consequences.

“In the 1990s, the Canadian government gave too much weight to the high catch rates of cod reported by the fishing industry and too little weight to warnings from science that the fish stocks were declining, and what happened was essentially the fishing fleet was concentrating on those aggregations of cod and they fished it down almost to the last animal, so the stock collapsed but the fishing rates remained relatively high, right up to the point of collapse,” he says.

“That stock has not yet recovered, even after a moratorium on fishing since 1992. We don’t want that to happen in the North Sea.” Lochhead is hoping that in the future, a regionalised CFP will give Scotland a bigger role in negotiations. While the UK Government has only just begun making concessions, allowing Scottish ministers to speak during EU ministerial negotiations, he sees a future where Scotland leads the official UK delegation.

“It makes sense that the minister with the greatest knowledge and experience of any particular issue leads on behalf of the UK on that issue,” he says.

“A reformed CFP would definitely give Scotland a bigger role if it went in the right direction because we are a big player – we have 20 per cent of Europe’s water and within those waters, we have some of Europe’s richest fish stocks and we’ve got one of the biggest fleets fishing for some of those stocks, so the closer decision making is brought to home, the bigger a role Scotland will have. Of course, we would insist that the UK government, where these decisions come back to member state level then they’re automatically by default devolved down to Scottish level.”

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