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Stop blaming the fishermen - Part II

Posted by Richard Thursday, July 01, 2004

In Part I, I explored the relative resonsibilities for the failures of fishing policy, concluding that the real responsibility lay with management. In this Part, I look at some the management failures of the CFP, contrasted with successes elsewhere.

There are several examples of commercial fisheries which are well managed. New Zealand, the Falklands, Namibia – believe it or not, the Grand Banks – the Faroes, Iceland and Norway are prime examples. Stocks are healthy and sustainable. Catches are plentiful, the fish are of good quality and highly marketable, the vessels are modern and efficient and the fishermen are prosperous and happy.

One glaring exception is the fishery defined by the waters of the member states of the European Union, which happen also to encompass some of the richest, most varied and fertile grounds in the world.

There, the fishermen are no different – no better, no worse – than fishermen anywhere else in the world. Yet the fishery is a disaster. Some stocks are on the verge of collapse, the fleets are suffering, with vessels being scrapped wholesale, and fishermen are going bankrupt in their droves. What is the difference? EU member state fisheries are run under the aegis of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Looking at the successful fisheries throughout the world – as we have done – the remarkable thing is that there is no single system, and in fact no agreement as to what constitutes an ideal system. But there are constants.

Firstly, all successful fisheries managers place a great premium on obtaining accurate, reliable information on what is happening in their fisheries – and there is world-wide consensus that the most reliable source is landings data.

Secondly, all these systems have the ability to process this information extremely quickly, and have an equally rapid decision-making process which can enable changes to be made to the regime at very short notice (sometimes in a matter of hours).

Thirdly, they have the means of rapidly communicating their decisions, in the form of executive orders to fishermen and, finally, they have effective means of enforcing those orders.

When one examines the CFP, however, none of those management tools are in place. Furthermore, under the prevailing system, providing those tools is not actually possible.

In the first instance, the difficulties in obtaining reliable catch data are insuperable, arising out of the very nature of the CFP. The problem is, quite simply, "equal access". The member state waters are defined under the EU treaties as a "common resource". Fishing vessels from all member states are therefore allowed “equal access”, and there can be no discrimination on the basis of nationality.

Because some 80 percent of the fish lie in British waters, however – and the bulk of the rest in Irish – this effectively means that the fleets of all the other member states have access to British and Irish waters. This means that the home fleets have to be cut back, as does their fishing effort.

Unsurprisingly, domestic (i.e., British and Irish) fishermen object to this (arguing, quite correctly, that “their” fish have been "given away" for wholly political ends) and, as they see foreign fleets – in their terms – pillaging "their waters", often allocated more generous quantities than they are allowed, they react accordingly.

The fishermen take the view that the only sensible response to what has become (as a result of "equal access") a diminishing resource is to grab as much of that resource as possible, before it disappears. "Better we have it than let the foreigners take it", is the prevailing ethos. Put more simply, they cheat. Equally, the foreign fleets cheat, the cumulative effect of which is that the landings figures are unreliable.

But the situation is actually worse than that. In order to allocate fishing effort, the Commission relies on a system of quotas, which are allocated by species, to the different member states and thence to individual vessels. Skippers are then allowed to catch amounts of fish up to their quota level, but any in excess cannot be landed – on pain of criminal prosecution. And since, under the current regime, fishermen cannot avoid catching species for which they have no quota, unknown quantities of fish – known as "discards" are ditched overboard.

Annually, those quantities are estimated to amount to hundreds of thousands of tons and, for some species, may considerably exceed individual quota allocations, hugely distorting the catch figures. In the successful systems, however, discards are always banned, because of this distorting effect on landings monitoring. Fishermen are required to land what they catch.

As an aside, it was earlier indicated in this piece that modern net design was such that different species could be selected, in which case discards should be minimal. However, the problem here is that net conformation is specified by regulation and many of the advanced, selective designs are not permitted under EU regulations.

Furthermore, net designers cannot get permission to experiment with new designs because, by definition, these are not permitted by current regulations. To use them, even on a scientific vessel, requires a derogation, which the Commission is extremely reluctant to give and, without at least some sea testing, any design project cannot get grant funding for commercial development. Thus, much of the selective fishing gear theoretically available simply cannot be used.

There is also an allied problem in that, while it is possible to select between some species, such as cod and haddock, between others it is not technically possible at the moment. For instance, segregation between monk fish – a high value species – and cod, is virtually impossible. Therefore, while it is possible to fish in a mixed fishery for either cod or haddock, and possible to fish for monk fish and cod without catching haddock, it is not possible to fish for haddock and monk fish without also catching cod.

Yet, the Scottish white fish fleet, which specialises in haddock, only covers its costs from haddock, the profitability of the fleet relying on the incidental monk fish catch. To enable segregation, while maintaining profitability, there also needs to be a restructuring of the fleet financial base, so that it can use available techniques.

All this notwithstanding, the combination of cheating and discards renders the landings data as unusable for the purposes of fisheries management, the results often leading to underestimates of the fish available, resulting in catch quota reductions which further increase the pressure to cheat and the amount of discarding.

The EU's commission, which is responsible for making the rules, tries to compensate for the poor data by using survey data from research vessels, but this is a poor substitute. These data are often so wildly wrong – also underestimating the biomass - that they reinforce the spiral of decline where, faced with rules based on obviously unsound data, the fishermen are even more determined to cheat – making the landings data even more unreliable.

This problem is then exacerbated by the slowness of data collection. Instead of the hours it takes in the systems run by the Icelanders and the Faroese (and others), the tortuous process of collecting data from diverse national authorities, checking it, correcting it, collating it and assessing it, takes many months. Before it is in a shape to use, the data can be up to a year old, or even older. It is out of date before it even gets to the decision-makers.

Then there is the decision-making process itself. Set up historically, the system requires that the commission formulates proposals, and the Council, now comprising 25 members, makes the decisions – which it does once a year at the December fisheries council. Working with out of date information, the decision are then delayed and then heavily influenced by political rather than scientific considerations. The council often ends up in a tense bargaining session, with such pressure on quota allocations that it has been known for the ministers, collectively, to award themselves more fish than are theoretically available.

However it is judged, the decision-making process is not in any way geared to making the rapid decisions necessary for the demands of modern fisheries management.

Then there is the matter of communication. When Owen Paterson recently went to Iceland, he saw their system in operation. When excessive juveniles were reported in a particular fishery, the detail was radioed in to the fisheries directorate, who then made a broadcast on public service radio, closing the fishery. From initial report, to closure was a matter of hours.

The EU does not get near this. After the last December fisheries Council, it took two months for the regulations to be produced, and then more time for the explanatory notes to be produced by the member states – without which the rules were intelligible. And then there were errors in the regulations, which took until the May to sort out. Rapid communication it is not.

Then there is the enforcement problem. This, I deal with in Part III.