High hopes

07 Aug 2012
Europe has increased its number of stocks at maximum sustainable yield to 19

Europe has increased its number of stocks at maximum sustainable yield to 19

It’s just four months until the introduction of Europe’s new Common Fisheries Policy. But how close are fishermen to getting the wholesale reform that they urgently need? Jason Holland reports.

Many of Europe’s fishing leaders will be praying the new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), to be implemented in January 2013, will bring far reaching, constructive change to an industry that in many cases is literally fighting for its survival.

Their hopes would have been buoyed by some of the strategies contained within the reform proposals published by EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki in July last year. Alongside the headline motions to end overfishing; bring all fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2015; an end to discarding unwanted fish at sea; and an ecosystem approach for all fisheries with long-term management programmes, were plans to introduce market-based approaches like individual tradable catch shares; support measures for small-scale fisheries; and improved fisheries data collection.

Arguably the biggest criticism of the current CFP is the prevalent one-size-fits-all approach to managing all of Europe’s fisheries – despite their vast natural and cultural differences. The fishing industry has long been calling for greater regional management of stocks, saying that it’s in their interest to ensure the biomass of their catch increases. Fishermen have also been saying the current system of micro-management from Brussels is more of a hindrance to best practice than a benefit.

To her credit, Ms Damanaki has stated many times in the three years since her appointment as commissioner that she wants to see far more regionalisation when it comes to fisheries management. She says member states must be empowered to make more decentralised decisions. However, it’s widely felt this opinion has amassed the most opposition from Members of European Parliament (MEPs), many of whom are reluctant to relinquish too much power in the reform process.

Discard ban
Ms Damanaki is having a slightly easier ride with her proposal to end discarding, thanks in no small part to the considerable consumer outrage generated by the Fish Fight campaign that was launched in January 2011 to call for an EU-wide ban on the controversial practice.

Championed by campaigning chef and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Fish Fight estimated that close to 500,000t of fish is being thrown away each year by Europe’s fishermen, including a massive 38% of the cod catch. It informed consumers that this wasn’t happening as a result of malpractice; they learned it was instead a symptom of a broken CFP – the same policy that was introduced to protect fish stocks.

Discarding is taking place because of the legal minimum landing size constraints that are in place; there are also quota reasons, whereby fishermen either have no quota for their catch or they’re managing quota for financial reasons – not wanting to land all their quota at once. Another major contributor to the volume of discarded fish is the fact there are no end-markets for some of the species being caught.

Eighteen months after the launch of Fish Fight – in June this year – European fisheries ministers finally agreed to implement a series of bans that will effectively outlaw discarding. The provisional dates agreed would see a ban on discards of mackerel and herring in place for 1 January 2014, while a phased ban on discarding cod, haddock, plaice and sole would be fully operational by 1 January 2018. These dates are now subject to negotiations within the European Parliament.

Predictably, the proposed dates failed to satisfy many interested parties and a number of marine conservation groups said the time scales for whitefish were too long-term and would fail to give the necessary protection to a number of at-risk stocks.

UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon, who had been fully behind Ms Damanaki’s proposal for a species-by-species ban, was also disappointed that the date of 1 January 2016 that the UK and other pro-reform governments had been pushing for with whitefish wasn’t agreed upon, but diplomatically said the “commitment to eliminating discards was a step in the right direction”.

From a commercial standpoint, it’s likely fishermen will actually welcome the additional two years and will use them to help generate markets for the currently undervalued whitefish species. However, the MEPs’ initial resistance to change will be a cause of concern for them over the coming months.

MSY disappointment
Ms Damanaki conceded the outcome of the discard negotiations was a compromise, but said it was still “workable”. What came as more of a blow to the commissioner was the fisheries ministers’ resolution to drag out the implementation of maximum sustainable yields (MSY) in European seas to the end of the decade.

The motion to implement MSY, which was first decided upon in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, was Ms Damanaki’s main policy to ensure European stocks are not overfished and an integral part of her reform package. As earlier mentioned, she had hoped to move to MSY from 2015 but ministers only agreed to that date “where possible”, and instead 2020 was the date settled on for stocks where there isn’t sufficient scientific data.

Despite the setback, in July it was confirmed that Europe had increased its number of MSY stocks to 19, up from 13 a year earlier.

“We have seen the proof this year that moving to MSY as soon as possible can bring short term-benefits, namely €135m ($16m) to our Atlantic fishermen because of quotas increases," said Ms Damanaki.

“Other stocks with good news are cod and sole in the Celtic Sea, sole in the Western Channel, herring in the Irish Sea, and a spectacularly good Norway lobster [Nephrops]in the west of Scotland. These stocks can bring increases worth well over €23m ($28.2m) just on their own. And this figure will increase once we get the rest of the advice for the large pelagics in autumn.

“Let’s continue [on] this path: our proposal this year is to follow scientific advice to reach MSY as soon as possible. And this should become the rule – the reform of the CFP offers the opportunity to enshrine the MSY concept…An opportunity that we shouldn’t miss.”

As many of the reform proposals on the table like MSY are aimed at bringing a greater degree of flexibility into the overall decision-making process and a more pro-active approach towards catching, there is an air of cautious optimism within the fishing industry. But with much more political wrangling expected to take place behind closed doors before the end of this year, it remains to be seen if Europe will get a policy that provides stability for its beleaguered fishing industry.

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