Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Co-management in the doldrums.

NFFO assistant chief executive, Dale Rodmell, argues that top-down policy has crowded out efforts to improve fisheries governance through co-management and that it is likely to have unintended consequences.

Not many people know, but in my formative years I used to work for an NGO. It was one based in Fiji and it was quite different to the ones our industry commonly associate with in the UK. Even though the NGO I worked for undertook, among other things, environmental conservation work, people and their livelihoods were at the centre of that work. Fundamentally, if it interfered adversely with peoples' lives and livelihoods it wasn't worth doing. Part of my time there involved working on a project on conflict management and consensus building in community natural resource management projects, a sign that even in international development work aimed at supporting communities, ideas and aspirations brought in from the outside often don't align harmoniously with the needs and aspirations of the people they hope to help.

I came home to witness a very different conservation NGO world from that which I had experienced, one that was preparing to sink millions into political advocacy to take a swipe at fisheries in the name of the marine environment. The adversarial approach I saw was anathema to me when reflected against my own experience of partnership working and trying to help people get on in life. The direct consequence of that was to lead me on a path to working for the fishing industry... no regrets there, honestly!

But I brought home with me a desire to see the benefits of resource users (i.e. the fishing industry in my subsequent employment) working in concert with managers to manage their resources effectively and sustainably and I was and still am intensely interested in the governance arrangements that can bring that about. Thankfully, I found myself in a like-minded place in the Federation that has long campaigned for industry involvement and de-centralised management of fisheries under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), towards enabling greater levels of self-management to prosper.

CFP Reform

That of course is still a work in progress. Even though in the latest CFP reform the arguments were being won against over-centralisation, and the regionalisation framework was secured, the naturally centralising tendencies of law makers, particularly when responding to alarmist moral panic populism, were still to leave the CFP with some nasty stings in the tail. The most significant of these was the highly prescriptive landing obligation.


The landing obligation has since tied up the bureaucratic resources of government on the European stage to such an extent that the benefits of the regionalisation framework have yet to be felt in any major way. The top-down nature of the policy means that, as it is progressively introduced, neither fisheries managers nor the industry can yet see how parts of the fleet are going to be able to operate viably and lawfully. As an exasperated fisherman reflected to me in one of our regional committee meetings recently, "are they wanting to turn us into criminals?" That sentiment is highly instructive. Fisheries policy should have learned from the past mistakes that led to the dark days of black-fish. Put people's backs against the wall and prevent them from making a living and any sense of buy-in to the objectives of management and support for the rules evaporates, and governance breaks down. What else would you expect? Fortunately, those dark days, borne out of policy failure that had led to fisheries over exploitation, are now behind us and today we are an industry that by and large is over overwhelmingly law-abiding.

From Sustainable Fisheries Exploitation to the Discard Ban and Habitat Conservation

But while the basic fisheries exploitation issues are being resolved, the landing obligation represents a new challenge where the blunt nature of remote decision making threatens to foist unworkable rules on parts of the industry that could up-end fishing livelihoods and result in unintended consequences. At a more localised scale, another is represented by the emerging approach to manage fisheries in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

At least in the case of discards, waste is something that does easily chime with our industry. But while you won't find many disagreeing with the sentiments to reduce it, the prerequisite has to be for the management system to effectively enable the industry to deal with it. The problem is that in the form of the landing obligation, we seem unlikely to be getting a workable arrangement.

The case for halting fishing in MPAs is different. With the exception of fragile and vulnerable habitats like reefs, where there is often common understanding, the case for withdrawing fishing from traditional fishing grounds on sediment habitats such as mud, sand and mixed sediments is a much more difficult sell to our industry. In many instances, local fishing communities have had no say at all over the location of an MPA that has landed on their historic fishing ground.

I've attended many a meeting with marine managers on MPAs where one of the first questions from industry is "what are you trying to protect?" When the answer comes back mud, sand or the like, it is typically met with an understandable furrowed brow, dumbfounded reaction, followed by "but it's been there for umpteen years/decades with fishing activity taking place", “its churned up by the weather what can I possibly be doing to it?" and "why are you picking on us and trying to put us out of business when you are letting the aggregates industry remove millions of tonnes of the stuff or allowing giant wind farms to be built on top of it?"

Interestingly, it seems it's not only fishermen who are perplexed about the need or motivations for managing their activities in MPAs. At the start of the English process to build the network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), a US practitioner reporting on the experience of completing California's network of MPAs had reflected that the general public's reaction there had been “well, so what?"

Some managers are toying with the idea of educational awareness raising. If only the people can be made to understand why feature A, B, C, etc needs protecting then they will buy-in to it so the logic goes. I have to say that was the attitude of conservationists in the 1980s and it was usually found wanting. I can't think it's going to have any more chance of success today, especially if it is unrelated to how the industry is expected to operate profitably and viably in the face of new restrictions.

Notwithstanding whether or not it is appropriate that traditional fishing grounds should be off limits as a consequence of an MPA, the problem is that few within government are planning on how the industry can continue to operate in the face of restrictions or giving the industry time to adapt. It is expected to work that out for itself. True, fishermen are opportunists by nature and have found ingenious ways of working with rules, but there is a limit. And if management is only about preventing people from carrying out their activities, for what is seen as a dubious objective, it hardly instils a sense of buy-in.


An alternative strategy is co-management. This is one that brings industry within the ambit of the decision-making process and it in turn takes a degree of responsibility over the design of management and its implementation. When regulators and those who are regulated share the same agenda, there is less likely to be a compliance problem. The majority are likely to see the rules as norms and work against those who do not follow them. This instils a culture of compliance with a degree of self-policing.

For us, the regionalisation framework within the CFP is a prerequisite for enabling this to happen, whereby the central European institutions set the framework for management and its objectives, but industry working with scientists and managers, design measures in order to achieve those objectives; so called results-based management.


For inshore waters in England, the bodies who should be best placed to foster co-management solutions are the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs). When I first became involved in domestic fisheries in the early noughties, the IFCAs' precursors, the Seas Fisheries Committees (SFCs) were in existence; local institutions to manage inshore fisheries with a heritage going back to the nineteenth century.

On paper they had the potential attributes for building successful co-management institutions, including operating at the right scale that brought with it an ability to build trust through easy communication and assimilation of local knowledge, and the ability to allow resource users to participate in management decision-making and have a degree of self-determination recognised by higher authorities. The idea of co-management was certainly in vogue as a response to the experiences of past management failure, and some SFCs, to greater or less extents, engaged with co-management strategies, although I think it is fair to say there were many false starts.

The MPA Bureaucratic Burden


Then, in 2009, the Marine and Coastal Access Act came along and SFCs were replaced by the IFCAs. With strengthened legislative powers, and in particular a much stronger remit for conservation, they soon set out to devote the largest part of their work to the preparation of measures for the protection of Marine Protected Areas. Such areas now cover around a quarter of coastal waters <12nm.

As a consequence of this, you won't hear anyone among the IFCAs talking about building co-management institutions these days. "There's no time for it" one officer told me. It's easy to see why when you take a look at the masses of bureaucracy that accompany each MPA designation.

Following the threat of legal challenge to the management of fisheries within MPAs by NGO's, government has been implementing a "revised" approach that has led to a raft of assessment and rule making procedures that Defra, the IFCAs and MMO are currently working through. In our efforts to defend the industry with a strengthened evidence base, we ourselves have dabbled in the fisheries risk assessments process associated with MPAs and I have just received 600 pages of assessments with the results of this work. The former head of marine at Natural England once referred to an “evidence arms-race" over MPAs. The mountain of paperwork currently being produced is testament to that.

Who are the Stakeholders?

But it's not just that IFCAs are now preoccupied with things other than managing fisheries. The make-up of the Committees themselves has also seen a relative marginalisation of fishing industry interests as IFCAs have accommodated greater numbers of other stakeholders compared to their SFC predecessors.

The word "stakeholder" is a horrible term and it has typically been used by government in a vacuous way to mean anyone with an interest, but to my mind there is a clue in the word to what it should mean – i.e. someone who has a "stake" in the outcomes of the decisions being taken. An academic friend recently referred me to a presentation he had seen that deals with this issue by identifying that some stakeholders should really be classed as "opinion-holders" as they don't have a direct stake in the decisions being taken, but who nonetheless have become an adopted and officially accepted part of management decision-making in fisheries.

A Retreating Government in the face of Lawlessness

The side-lining of the fisheries co-management agenda is of course also being influenced by ongoing cuts in public spending and we have yet to see where Defra intends to implement a further 15% of pending cuts.


The growing burden of new regulation, together with cuts to front-line enforcement duties is conspicuous and has not gone unnoticed by our industry. Many of our members lament that there has been a long-standing, but steadily growing lawlessness among unlicensed operators illegally trading fish. It's not a victimless crime, commercial fishermen are losing out. Illegal bass, for instance, has been depressing the commercial markets and draconian measures proposed by the Commission for bass for next year will have no effect on this underworld.

Leave lawlessness festering for too long and at some point law-abiding people struggling under a mountain of rules will decide that they are better off on the other side. Once it becomes culturally embedded it becomes far more difficult to change behaviour. I've heard on a number of occasions of "untouchables" in unlicensed fishing that the police or enforcement authorities won't go near, even if they do have time to allocate resources, which increasingly they don't.

Government is in retreat. This ought to be seen as an opportunity to build institutions for co-management based on shared objectives between those being managed and those doing the managing. This would strengthen governance and buttress compliance at a time when there are fewer public enforcement resources.

Instead of doing that, top-down discards and conservation policies are taking up the finite public resources, and fisheries management institutions, which are less able or inclined to engage with the fishing industry, are about to become the bearer of rules that run against the grain of paying the bills and making a living. Managers are hoping that electronic monitoring is going to fill the void created by failing to build a foundation for acquiescence. It's a poor alternative and relations between industry and managers look set to be in for a testing time. Perhaps those NGOs more interested in litigation and high level political lobbying than supporting people's livelihoods should ask themselves “are we really helping?".