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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

How the discards ban could spell the end of family owned fishing vessels

The following article by Bertie Armstrong, chief executive, Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, was published in The Buchan’s Observer’s annual Fishing Review for 2014. In it, he warns that if the forthcoming discards ban is implemented badly, it could spell the demise of traditional family owned fishing vessels.

There is no business quite like fishing, and as each year passes, the challenges facing our crucial sector seem to gather pace with frightening speed.

The next few years are likely to be particularly fraught, most notably because of the introduction of the discards ban, or ‘land-all obligation’. For our mackerel and herring fishermen it will come into force on 1 January 2015, and for most other fishermen it will be gradually phased in over the following few years, with all species covered by 1 January 2019. Those representing our interests supported and signed up for this – and now we have to face the consequences.

The challenges of making the discards ban a reality in the timescale will vary by fishery. A few, like the creel sector and some specific areas in the prawn fisheries already have low discards and will encounter less difficulty. The real struggle will be in the mixed fisheries pursued by the whitefish fleet and most of the North Sea prawn fleet. Here, the question of what to do with “choke species” – the point where an individual vessel runs out of its lowest quota in the mix and has to stop fishing altogether – is no closer to an answer than it was when first posed six or seven years ago.

We have several mitigating factors – some progress on selectivity, the prospect of quota uplift, various flexibilities in the new Common Fisheries Policy regulation, but we still have no clear vision about how the ban can be implemented without radical changes in the worst-affected fleets. If we do nothing, the default radical change will be very significant consolidation of those fleets, moving away from the present Scottish model of family and small consortium ownership of vessels with a strong local attachment. Instead, there will be a much smaller number of much bigger vessels, each coping more easily with the discard ban given the flexibility of a proportionally greater access to quota and under a different ownership model. It may be that a degree of consolidation is simply unavoidable, but now is the time when the choices facing the industry must be urgently addressed to make sure that we drive those choices rather than the other way round.

A recent tripartite agreement between the EU, Norway and the Faroese brought at least a partial agreement on the long-standing mackerel dispute and this in turn finally brought around an agreement between the EU and Norway on catching opportunities in the North Sea, including a 5% increase in the cod quota.

Many of the quota allocations just agreed for the North Sea are in line with long-term management plans. We had hoped that there would have been a bigger increase in the North Sea cod quota, but at least the proposed cut has been successfully fended-off. A cut in the cod quota at this stage would have made a mockery of the European Commission’s commitment to end discarding as it would only have led to fishermen dumping good quality marketable fish overboard, given the abundance of the stock. The science shows that a 5% increase in the cod quota will lead to a significant increase in the stock over the coming year.

The recovery of North Sea cod is a remarkable success story but there needs to be a sensible long-term approach to the management of the stock that recognises that biomass is increasing, fishing pressure is falling and that the stock is being harvested sustainably.

But against this complicated and difficult background, there is also much to be encouraged by. Take the public perception of fishing as an example. In recent years it has come under unprecedented attack by ill-informed journalists and armchair environmental experts. We’ve all seen the headlines about their only being ‘100 adult cod left in the North Sea’, when the actual figure was over 20 million. And then there was ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’ on Channel 4, which again vilified fishermen.

Of course the truth is very different, and indignant fishermen rose up against these inaccuracies, and guys like Peter Bruce of the Budding Rose and many others Tweeted and Facebooked their way to putting the record straight. The SFF also launched our own website, www.fishingforthetruth.co.uk, which contains a whole host of information on fisheries and how our fishermen are working towards a sustainable future. And all these actions are working, with the most recent ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’ programme providing a much more balanced picture, recognising the hard work of our fishermen.

The truth is that the majority of our fish stocks are recovering, thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of our fishermen to develop selective gear, observing closed areas to fishing to protect spawning and juvenile fish, along with many other measures. This is all positive news, but there also needs to be a structure put in place that ensures there is a future for fishing, and which encourages youngsters to enter our great industry.

For that to be achieved, there needs to be much greater recognition from the EU and our national governments of the complexities of fishing and the need to develop much more sensible and coherent fisheries management measures that actually work in practice, rather than just look good on paper. And how do you do that? Well, there is only one way – work and consult closely with the people who understand fishing the best – the fishermen themselves.