Thursday, 5 November 2015

Cornish skippers lay down the gauntlet - will the EU Fisheries Council accept the challenge?

LOoming over the horizon!

Ever since Hugh's infamous 'FishFight' campaign whipped the media into a frenzy as a hard-pressed fisheries council, already desperate to be seen to implement some sort of legislation in response to mounting pressure from the big hitting NGOs, the spectre of some sort of nil discards policy has been looming ever larger over every bay in UK waters. In an industry already manacled by a quota system based on historical data now well over 25 years, and in some cases older, the fight for nil discards has now manifested itself into the Landing Obligation (LO) - still based on that same outdated data - is about to come into force for those boats fishing for whitefish - the bottom trawlers, beam trawlers and netters that make up the bulk of the fishing effort around our coast.

Here's how the official government website currently tells fishermen what to expect come the LO day:
If you target certain demersal quota species you will be subject to the demersal landing obligation (discard ban) from 1 January 2016.
Not all demersal fish are immediately affected from this date because the EU is gradually introducing the new rules. Which rules apply to you depend on the sea area you fish in and the gear you use. Find out which apply to you. You must follow the pelagic landing obligation rules if you target any pelagic quota species (e.g. mackerel and herring). For species which are not subject to the landing obligation, follow the current rules.
Guidance for fishermen:  Which fish come under the landing obligation, what you have to do with them on board your vessel and which you can sell for human consumption. MMO website.

Here's the MMO's quick guide to the LO.

Crystal Sea II Skipper David Stephens has been working closely with the MMO within the remit of the Catch Quota Scheme (CQT).

David Stevens Jnr and Snr supervise making yet more changes to their fishing gear - much of it funded solely from their cod ends (they twin-rig).

With only a few weeks to go before the first stage of the LO becomes operable in UK waters he has penned a few words on the boat's new website that seeks to explain where his family business, the livelihood of his crew and all the other people who depend directly or indirectly on his ability to catch fish might be post 2019 when the LO is fully implemented.

The post starts off, as one would expect from David in a positive tone - singing the praises for those involved (and that includes his willing but suffering crews) in the CQT:

"We have had a lot of success with the adaptions we have made with our gear in eliminating juvenile haddocks, and the total capture of haddocks of all sizes. We have reduced under the MLS haddock catches by 87% and the total volume of haddocks is now well under 70% of what we would expect to see in our control nets (the gear we worked prior to the trial.) We have also had to use area avoidance and many nights we have been unable tow, due to volumes of haddocks still being too large for the quota we have available. This has come at a cost, we have lost our catch of whiten almost completely, our squid catch is down by half. We have been unable to work all of our grounds as well, so we haven’t always been in the best place to fish. Also by not towing at night from April through to October we have missed 25% of our hauls in this time period, with the resulting loss of all that fish we would have obviously taken, (megs, monks, lemons , ray, whiten Gurnard, Dover sole , and many more).There has been a fairly considerable financial loss this year, as well as a loss to the markets, of fish that we would have otherwise caught during our laying at night and area avoidance.
David then sounds a cautionary note referencing that great flaw in the current quota system - historical catch data: 

I would say bad policy creates far more discards than so called bad fishing practices, there are many complex reasons why a species becomes a choke, for our choke (area 7 haddocks) this is a multi layered problem. Essentially from what we are seeing on the grounds I think the lack of scientific data and more importantly the way that data is collected is causing a problem with the stock estimates of this species.
Coupled with that basing the quota amounts on historical catch data records is going to have huge implications across the EU as we all know fish move, and distribution cycles have changed in the last 25 years dramatically.This is the problem for us for area 7 haddock, before 95 we hardly saw a haddock now they are everywhere. The same can be said for many species around the UK and Ireland take hake for example in the North Sea.
Also drawing lines on a chart that determine stock coverage is no way to manage a fishery, the fish follow the feed and they will pass through area's and pay no attention to imaginary lines on a map, something is needed to address this issue as well.

When skippers like David - totally committed to staying in the business of commercial fishing summarise their work like this:

"I would say on reflection although we have lost out in what we have done financially we have learned a great deal from our experience, we have made a few mistakes along the way, that’s inevitable. 
As the landings obligation stands at present with the proposed flexibility's on the table, by 2019 the fleets in our area and probably across Europe the fleets will be tied up by half way through the year, the supplies of fish will cease and the consequences will ripple through the entire supply chain. This will result in unemployment, bankruptcies, losses to market share and fish supply shortages, a total disaster!
However I hope from what we have learned policy makers can get a good grasp of what problems we will encounter and more importantly the reasons why, fisherman’s voices need to be heard more clearly in this process,we have seen first hand the impact this policy will create and it doesn't look good.

Hopefully, the combined efforts of all those fishermen involved in the CQT and subsequent spin-off research will lead to more widespread and robust data acquisition which then helps prevent the predicted catastrophe that at present awaits the industry, consumers and fishing communities.

In a post made just over a year ago David suggested what every mixed-fishery fisherman has long been dreaming of - greater self-regulation and flexibility in working practices backed up by quantitative data- but, through force of circumstances, this may now be achieved given the apparent unworkability of the LO!

"The decisions that are made in Brussels by the EU have had a huge impact on how we run our businesses. We are often left wondering how simple policies, have been made so complicated and bureaucratic that once they are introduced to industry level, they just don't work. I think that with the introduction of the discards ban, the bureaucrats have bitten off more than they can chew, and for once in their lives they are looking for someone else to come up with the answers.
This time it has to be the industry which leads the way, and I am sure that if we step up to the challenge, we can meet it. As long as the commission are prepared to rip up the rule book and afford us more flexibility to run our business's as we know best, so we can deliver the clean fisheries we know we can achieve."

The full text for the extracts and in the context of the Crystal Sea's blog can be seen here: