A complex political wrangle between European institutions over who should take the lead in some crucial fisheries management decisions looks set to overshadow the end-of-the-year Fish Council talks in Brussels that start tomorrow (18 December), threatening the viability of the Scottish fleet through the further reduction in the number of days that fishing vessels can put to sea.
The SFF says that since 2001 the total fishing effort by the Scottish fishing fleet has fallen by a massive 69% and that any further cuts would be economically unsustainable.
In effect, if such cuts went ahead there would not be enough fishing days to catch the available quota. The mechanism for the automatic annual reductions in days is legally tied into the European Commission’s long-term plan for cod, which is now widely recognised by most fishing industry experts – including the EC’s own scientific advisory body - as being fundamentally flawed.
The North Sea cod stock (and many other fish stocks) are now recovering around the Scottish coast, which the SFF says is principally down to innovative conservation measures adopted unilaterally by the fishing fleet that include real-time area closures to protect spawning stocks and technical alterations to fishing gear that has significantly reduced fish discards.
But the chances of scrapping the automatic cuts in days and instead freezing the fishing effort at current levels now looks a daunting prospect, given that there is power struggle between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament over the responsibilities of each. Under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament is now brought into the decision-making process, which brings an additional democratic layer and a further opportunity for the industry to influence its management – but that process is unable to make quick decisions.
Bertie Armstrong, SFF chief executive, says: “Normally at this time of year – the later stages of the ‘fisheries negotiating season’ - the Scottish fishing industry focuses on our Fisheries Ministers’ efforts to achieve the maximum sustainable fishing opportunity for the following year. That opportunity, the economic lifeblood of the industry, has two components - fish to catch and crucially, time to catch them.
“Days at sea have become an increasingly central focus for the industry and government fisheries managers as the total available effort has been ratcheted down automatically year-on-year since 2008 under the EC’s plan for cod. The cod stock is recovering, but this is down more to our own initiatives rather than the inflexible and widely discredited cod plan. The crux of the problem is that this cod plan is enshrined in law.
“Changes to such law affecting fisheries management are now a matter of co-decision between the Council of Fisheries Ministers and the European Parliament. This is highly significant - in the past such things would have been settled just by the Council, so the process behind decisions is now much longer. For the industry, this new opportunity to influence fisheries management is a good thing and such a mechanism can be well fitted for long-term strategic decisions. But when it comes to making urgent decisions, then the penalties of delay will be the overriding factor.
“We are now in a difficult short-term situation where everyone agrees that the plan is not meeting its objectives but, since it is the law, we are due for another set of reductions to days at sea for 2013. Alteration of the plan will be possible under co-decision – indeed a proposal has been tabled by the Commission, but not in time to stave off another turn of the screw. Waiting for results is a luxury that the fishing industry does not have – if we get another turn of the ratchet on days at sea reductions there will be real and lasting economic damage to the catching industry by a plan that all agree is not working.
“There is one immediate fix available - for the Council of Fisheries Ministers to pull days at sea out of the cod plan, place them under their own jurisdiction and decide to freeze allocations at current levels. This can be done on the initiative of the Presidency of the Council (a rotational post - currently Cyprus). But the problem is that will probably be challenged by the European Parliament, which considers effort to be part of its new responsibilities. It seems that lawyers for the three European institutions: the Council, the Commission the European Parliament, disagree on whether such action by the Council is legal. There is little doubt that it will then be tested in court, which we imagine will take considerable time, crippling elements of fisheries management in the interim.
“Wholly regrettably, the centre of the argument is not the conduct of sensible fisheries management, but the legal definition of responsibilities between European institutions. Sensible fisheries management is what the industry needs and deserves and should be at the heart of the sustainable harvesting of seafood. There have been other areas of European endeavour where compromise and cooperation between the institutions in the face of difficulty had been difficult but possible – and this is one such area of crying need. The fishing industry, which is fully engaged in doing the right thing for sustainable fishing, cannot become a casualty of crossfire in inter-institutional arm-wrestling.”
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