Tuesday, July 20, 2004

More from Iceland

Contrary to popular perception, not all MPs spend their days on the golf course, propped up at the bar, or tucked away with their latest mistress.  Some actually do work for a living and one, Owen Paterson MP, shadow minister for agriculture and fisheries, has taken it upon himself to learn as much as he can about fisheries, with a view to formulating a realistic alternative to the CFP.
As part of that programme, earlier this month, he and Struan Stevenson MEP went to Iceland to look at the fisheries there.  They reported their experiences in an article in  Fishing News, which was published last week.  We reproduce it here:
The Common Fisheries Policy is a joke – a cruel joke. That was what Struan Stevenson MEP and I were told by the fishermen of Iceland when we visited their country last week. They had nothing but contempt for a system which had driven the British industry into penury and caused a widespread collapse of stocks.

This opinion was shared by officials who manage the Icelandic fisheries and even leading bankers, on the island. One, who invests world-wide in successful fishing industries, has made it company policy not to invest in any fishing business in Russia or the EU because of arbitrary political decisions.

The Icelandic Fisheries Ministry explained that their core objective is to ensure that fishing is not a burden on the economy, but must contribute to it. They have certainly succeeded in doing that. Fisheries now accounts for ten percent of Iceland’s GDP. It employs 5,000 marine fishermen and another 5,000 ancillary workers and processors onshore.

As to the industry itself, its prosperity is obvious. There were modern, well-equipped trawlers tied up in the fish docks in Reykjavik, and modern fish-processing plants. Prosperity was something the industry shared with the Faroes, which I visited earlier this year. Yet, in a country of 293,000 people which claims ownership of 260,000 mobile phones, the fisheries system could not be more different.

While the Faroes rely on effort control – with days at sea – the Icelanders dismiss this idea. They rely on an annual TAC and Individual Transferable Quotas. Quotas can be bought and sold between fishing companies, none of whom are allowed to own more than 12 percent of the total quota.

This has seen the consolidation of the industry, which is now owned by around a dozen major companies. However, because the fishermen themselves own the resource – the fish stocks – there is no landing of "black fish", very little discarding and a general drive towards a fully sustainable fishery where no more than a quarter of any stock can be fished in a single year.

Although different in that respect from the Faroes, it is also successful. Cod stocks have fluctuated between 1½ -2 ½ million tons over the last decades, and catches are lower than in the heady days of the 1980s, when stocks of 1.2 million tons were recorded. But they have clawed back from the disastrous 90s, when they dropped to 600,000 tons, currently restored to a healthy 8-900,000 tons, allowing landings of over 200,000 tons.

Total catches of all species amount to some 2 million tons. Skippers and senior crew bringing home earnings of €100,000 a year are not abnormal.

To achieve this, their system has commonalities with the Faroes – not least national control. Not only are discards banned, there is a premium on getting rapid, accurate information from the fishery, fast decision-making and very rapid implementation.

With TACs calculated annually, allowing vessel quotas to be allocated, with specific quotas reserved for small vessels, the significant difference between the Icelandic system and the EU is the information flow. While the CFP is based on old and unreliable data, Icelandic TACs are determined with the most up-to-date information from landings, which is generally reckoned to be accurate, augmented by extensive data from government survey vessels.

Also, the fishing effort is constantly being fine-tuned. Reports of excessive juveniles being caught are radioed in to the Fisheries Directorate, which employs 95 staff, and the area affected is immediately closed. Public radio broadcasts are made to warn fishermen to steer clear of the designated area. Additionally, there are huge conservation areas, off-limits to fishing, to preserve spawning and juvenile stocks.

The government sets the rules, and the fishermen are left to get on with it. There are no subsidies and no state aid. Those who break the rules are "named and shamed" on the Fisheries Directorate internet site. Serious or serial offenders lose their licenses.

This "light touch" has seen the fleet contract from 2,500 registered vessels in 1992, to less than 1,700 in 2002, with fewer people employed. But capacity has not reduced significantly. The fleet has become more modern, and more efficient, as the stability afforded by the management system has encouraged vessel owners to invest. This is not just confined to the large vessels. The under 10m boat skippers are prospering as well. They have one of the most modern and efficient fleets in the world.

What gives the system some of its advantages is its flexibility. Skippers who land over quota are allowed to buy more quota to cover the excess, although they are only given 48 hours to do so, once the fish are landed. On the other hand, skippers who do not meet their quotas are not allowed to keep it – to prevent people making a living out of trading quota.

Yet, despite their successes, they admit that they still do not fully understand the ecosystem on which they depend. They have thus invested in a world-class marine research centre, which employs 180 people, paid from a levy on fish auction prices. It is this which helps to keep Iceland in front, in a rapidly changing market, where quality and availability of stocks are at a premium.

Generally, the Icelanders are happy with their system. Certainly, the fact that they can make fishing pay made a refreshing change from the doom and despondency of Britain, where the British Government is pouring money into scrapping our best and most modern vessels and where crew members and skippers are thrown on the dole in large numbers. Their flexibility and imagination was in total contrast to the leaden bureaucracy of the CFP.

We were deeply impressed by a system that has been so successful that the government is about to implement a special resource tax of 9.5 percent on "excessive profits" from the industry.

We left determined that, at the first available opportunity, we will restore national and local control to the British fishery. We will use the Iceland experience, and the experience from the other fisheries we have visited to help us shape a successful UK policy.

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