Scotland seeks change to fisheries management

by Jun 13, 2011 No Comments
A look at Scotland’s role in delivering change on fisheries management

Commissioner Damanaki and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launch the European Fish Fight campaign in Brussels © European Union 2011When the European Commission publishes proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in July, the road ahead for the Scottish fishing fleet will finally become clearer.

Whether the reformed CFP will actually make the outlook for the industry better is something that remains to be seen. When a draft of the proposals was leaked in May this year, they were met with a mixed response. While most interested parties, including the Scottish Government, welcomed moves toward decentralisation there were other aspects of the plan that caused concern.

The EC’s Green Paper on CFP reform in April 2009 stated that the issue of discarding dead fish back into the sea had to be addressed with urgency, and since then the issue has risen in prominence in the UK due to a campaign by TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Under the current system, fishermen are penalised for landing more fish than their quota allocation allows and the industry argues that dumping fish is their only option. However, the draft proposals for a blanket ban on discards to get stocks up to a sustainable level by 2015 have been criticised by scientists and industry. While scientists say they won’t go far enough to make up for years of over fishing, industry says they could be unworkable.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation described the blanket ban as the “bluntest of blunt instruments”.

“No fisherman can say, ‘I will go out today and I will catch only haddock’ – that’s just impossible – and under the present regulations, the only way is to stop fishing when you reach your first quota,” he said.

But the proposal currently causing the most controversy has been the potential introduction of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) that would be awarded to fishing vessels and could be traded with other countries. Environmentalists have reacted to this negatively, with Markus Knigge, policy and research director of the European Marine Programme at Pew Charitable Trust describing it as “virtual privatisation of the oceans”.

Scottish Government Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead also believes that if this is contained in the final policy proposals, it will have a negative impact on Scotland.

“The last thing Scotland wants to see is a proposal that would allow our historic fishing opportunities to be bought and sold like sweeties in the shop,” he says.

“That would be, perhaps, good news for multinationals but not for our fishing communities who should always be given the right to fish the stocks in Scottish waters and no generation of fishermen or any government should be given the right to sell off historic fishing rights.”

If the proposals for ITQs are included in the EC’s July paper, there will still be time to argue for change to be made before the full CFP proposals are decided in December 2012. However, this is a much more difficult process than influencing policy before proposals have been outlined.

Although the majority of the UK’s fishing industry is located in Scotland, because it is part of the UK delegation at EU level, getting the Scottish viewpoint across during the CFP negotiations is not a straightforward process. Early engagement is vital, and since 2009 work to influence proposals by telling the Scottish story has been carried out by MEPs and the Scottish Government’s Brussels office.

The fact that Scotland has worked hard to introduce new measures on species conservation has helped make the country’s voice heard; having good quality ideas based on working examples is seen as a vital part of the process.

The Catch Quota Scheme has been one of those positive measures. The EC gave permission for it to be piloted by 17 Scottish fishing boats last year, and this year, it has been expanded to include around 40. Vessels are allowed to land all the cod they catch after filling their original quota in return for having their boats fitted with monitoring equipment to ensure fishermen are not breaking the rules.

“There’s no doubt that the commission and other member states have sat up and taken notice of what’s happening in Scotland and there has been international recognition of the fact that Scotland has blazed a trail in terms of fisheries conservation,” says Lochhead.

SNP MEP Ian Hudgton, who sits on the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, agrees that having these strong examples has helped him and fellow MEPs make the case in Parliament.

“We’re not just saying we want to do things differently just because, what we’re saying is here we have some experience of doing things differently, of designing adequate measures that actually fit the nature of the fishery in the North Sea and that actually seem to work,” Hudgton says.

“Why shouldn’t the future of fisheries management be like that rather than being ended by the alleged treaty-based need to have a common resource and common European sea?”

But Hudgton also points out that having good, workable examples is not always enough, and there have been times when the influence of southern European fishing nations has caused frustration.

“Their operation in Brussels is highly effective and it has proven in the past to be able to somehow defy expectations sometimes and win votes in here when logic wouldn’t necessarily be on their side.”

“We’ve got an uphill struggle here, in some ways, to achieve all that I would like to achieve.”

This round of CFP reform is the first time that the European Parliament has had full legislative competence over fisheries. Before the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009, the Parliament only had consultation powers. This means that MEPs have been able to play a bigger part in influencing proceedings this time around.

Although, arguably, more difficult, it was still possible for Scottish MEPs to influence policy during the last round of CFP reform. Labour MEP Catherine Stihler previously sat on the Fisheries Committee and remembers that during negotiations leading up to 2003’s reforms, Scottish MEPs managed to successfully argue for the creation of regional advisory councils.

“We fought hard to have regional advisory councils and that was a great win for us. Now you have the regional advisory council, you have that almost devolution.”

However, highlighting the difficulties involved in grouping together with other parties in order to argue a position, Stihler adds: “Sadly, some people then took the ‘withdraw all CFP’ approach which then lessens your influence and impact.”

While in Scotland it is generally agreed by environmental NGOs and Government alike that the way forward for fisheries management should be to move toward more regionalisation, it would be fair to say that handing powers back to member states is not something that comes naturally to the EC. Since Commissioner Maria Damanaki became Fisheries Commissioner last year, though, a change of tone has been noted.

Stihler says: “In the last round of negotiations, we had a commissioner who was not terribly interested in fishing, let’s put it that way, whereas I believe this time you actually have someone who’s open, who’s listening and that is so important.”

Hudgton also admits to being “reasonably impressed” with the new commissioner’s attitude and willingness to listen and while this is a positive development, he suspects Damanaki will be finding there is resistance to new ideas from the EC’s “old guard”.

“They see themselves as the guardians of the treaties, as opposed to finding a way to do things better that have failed so far under treaty-based management. I think she’s taking on that argument and she’s made a bit of progress but what will be very telling, I think, will be what is in the very final form of proposal in July.”

Hudgton says there is talk that one of the reasons for pushing back publication of the EC’s proposals to July is because of an argument around the legality of decentralisation in respect of the European treaties. It is perhaps for this reason that, when asked for his views on Damanaki’s performance, Lochhead reserves judgement.

“We’ve had good warm words from the European Commissioner and she certainly has a very good relationship with Scotland and is very well aware of the work that’s been happening in Scottish waters.

“The next few months will be crucial in finding out whether she can follow up her words with action and that means decentralising fisheries management powers to member states and not having every decision taken in Brussels by remote control,” he says.

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