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Saturday, 25 January 2014

“A Black Box which Produces Smoke”

Last week’s annual meeting in Copenhagen between ICES (the International Council for Exploration of the Sea) and the advisory councils provided an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come since the days when fishermen and fisheries scientists at best ignored each other, and at worst considered each other mortal enemies.

In a memorable phrase, ICES recalled that a little more than a decade ago the ICES system was like a “black box which produced smoke”. No one outside ICES was allowed to peer into the box and the smoke, the scientific advice, was like a holy writ that could not be challenged or contested. By contrast, ICES is now at pains to provide multiple opportunities to increase the transparency of the advisory process, and to provide facilities to ask the awkward questions - about assumptions, models, data, processes and procedures.

The result is that fisheries science gets stronger as a result. Problems are identified, allowing for solutions to be developed.

The annual get-together between the advisory councils provides an opportunity, at a high strategic level, to share information on the way that the science advisory system is evolving, but also to discuss developments within in the ACs and the fisheries which they represent. This meeting is important but is only one aspect of the new relationship.

Throughout the year invitations to the advisory councils are issued to stakeholders to engage in the process through which ICES formulates its advice. The most important of these are the benchmark meetings. This is where all the knowledge on a specific stock is gathered and rigorously analysed. The assessment is taken apart and put together again. 


  • Is the right assessment model being used? What is the quality of the data? What are the trends in the fishery? 
  • What can be done to improve the assessment? 

These benchmarks can only be undertaken on a handful of stocks each year but they provide an important opportunity for fisheries stakeholders to provide pieces of relevant information or point to aspects of the fishery which may have been overlooked by the scientists. Few these days pretend that fisheries scientists are all-seeing. 

But there is wide agreement that science – especially science in which stakeholders are fully engaged - provides the best prospect to understand what is happening with our fish stocks and the dynamic environmental processes that underpin them.

Stronger Science, Higher Quotas

Gaps in fisheries data often lead to lower quotas. Addressing data deficiencies, therefore putting fisheries science on a sounder footing, is therefore one way in which fisheries organisations can improve catch prospects for their own members.

Since 2010, the North West Waters Advisory Council has worked closely with ICES to identify problem stocks where there are data deficiencies, identify the specific problems and, where possible, set in train remedial measures. Individual data coordinators have been appointed to link with the relevant scientists within ICES. The initiative has covered hake, monkfish, megrim, cod, haddock, whiting, nephrops, sole, plaice, skates and rays. From the outset the AC has been at pains not to duplicate other data initiatives and to focus on those areas where it can add value. This work will continue in 2014.

Maximum Sustainable Yield

The reform of the CFP agreed in June 2013, includes an obligation to set fishing opportunities to achieve MSY by 2015, if possible, and in any event by 2020. What remains unclear is how this legally enshrined political aspiration can be achieved in the context of mixed fisheries and multi-species interactions. Both ICES and the advisory councils are working to provide advice on the best way to provide high-yield fisheries within the context of predation, completion for food and other inter-species interactions. Ultimately this is a political question because it inevitably involves trade-offs between different species and therefore different groups of stakeholders. But the politicians will rely heavily on scientific advice and advice from the advisory councils.

It is interesting, therefore, that although the ACs and ICES use different terminology, there seems to be an emerging consensus that understanding maximum sustainable yield in terms of a group of species exploited together, rather than as isolated single stocks, helps us progress towards a workable, pragmatic and more realistic policy on MSY. MSY understood as a range of values rather than a fixed point may provide a means to match political aspirations with biological realities.

Landings Obligation

No discussion about the future of European fisheries would be complete without reference to the impending discard ban. It is clear that the scientists are very concerned that the landings obligation, depending on how it is implemented, has the capacity to disrupt the data streams on which fisheries science depends. This is one of the factors that the member states as they develop regional discard plans will have to take into account and seek to mitigate.

Conclusions

It is difficult to grasp just how far the relationship between ICES, fisheries scientists working in the national laboratories and the fishing industry has come in just over 10 years. ICES has opened itself and its processes to scrutiny and the fishing industry has responded in a mature, positive, way. The advisory councils provide a very effective way for stakeholders to engage with fisheries science at different levels. However, ICES’s new openness is only one aspect of a generally improving picture.

Fisheries science partnership projects, in one form or another, through which fishermen and scientists work collaboratively to address specific fisheries issues, are now common across Europe.

The Commission has opened up its Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries to active stakeholder observers who play a positive role The scope, under the new CFP, for member states to formulate policy at regional level has already opened new opportunities for the advisory councils to shape the future; this will become increasingly important as regionalisation beds in. All this comes at a price and it is clear that both scientists and stakeholders face resource constraints in terms of finance but more importantly time and people to participate in all the opportunities for mutual engagement which are now available. In that narrow sense it was certainly easier in the bad old days we didn’t talk to each other. But on the other hand, we detect no appetite, either within the fishing industry or in the scientific community, to return to those days. The bottom line is that fisheries science is stronger as a result of this close engagement.


Courtesy of the NFFO