Top Story: Policy overhaul?

Published on
April 1, 2012

Originally published in Seafood Business Magazine

Empower fishermen, regionalize control among the suggestions lobbied by CFP critics

Decrepit,” “broken” and “failure” are three somber words frequently used to describe the current EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). But while widespread public calls for wholesale policy overhaul persist, behind closed doors there remains considerable political resistance to Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki’s reform proposals.

Damanaki spent much of the first half of last year touring Europe to secure support for her much-anticipated CFP reform proposals. But when these proposals were eventually published in July of last year they failed to impress many of the groups that had rallied behind the commissioner. These supporters were aggrieved that the proposals didn’t go far enough.

Included in the reform package were the following key elements:

• All fish stocks will have to be brought to sustainable levels by 2015;

• An ecosystem approach for all fisheries with long-term management plans; and

• The practice of discarding will be phased out and fishermen will be obliged to land all their catch.

Also included were targets and timeframes to stop overfishing; market-based approaches such as individual tradable catch shares; support measures for small-scale fisheries; improved data collection; and strategies to promote sustainable aquaculture.

The United Kingdom has considerable interest in CFP reform because in tonnage terms it has the EU’s second-largest fishing fleet. But U.K. Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon — one of Damanaki’s most ardent supporters — confesses he was “slightly worried” by the lack of depth in the proposals for moving sufficient decision-making away from Brussels’ “micro-management.”

“I wanted them to be slightly stronger,” says Benyon. “I think it’s absolutely vital to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach of managing fisheries from the sub-Arctic north down to the Mediterranean. As we all know, it’s a completely crazy system. It’s also absurd having mesh sizes decided so remotely.

“I want us to develop a common framework, to be rid of the unnecessary, overarching rules that govern fisheries. Many unnecessary decisions are made in the Commission and I want to see these devolved so we have a greater regional management of stocks.”

He continues: “I want to see fishermen who have an entitlement to fish. If they invest in the size of the biomass of the stocks they are fishing, then it’s absolutely in their interest to see the size of that biomass increase.”

Commercial stakeholders such as celebrity chef and restaurateur Mitch Tonks believe European decision makers need to acknowledge that successful fisheries have been built elsewhere by empowering fishermen. He believes greater regionalization of power is vital to the new regulations’ success and that this approach would also go some way to ensuring more effective, more sustainable fisheries management.

“Look at how fishing nations like Norway look after their fisheries and how their fishermen are involved in policymaking and managing stocks. Yes, these are some different species, but it’s worked absolute wonders in terms of the way that fisheries and quotas are managed,” he says.

“I certainly think quotas need to be owned by fishermen so they are absolutely involved in discussions,” Tonks continues. “I know there have been some bad habits in the fishing industry in the past, but I firmly believe fishermen are much less that way inclined now, particularly after all the vessel decommissioning. At my own local port (Brixham) they want to be fishing forever and a day.”

But in Tonks’ opinion, many Members of European Parliament (MEPs) will “unfortunately” be reluctant to hand too much authority to the fishing industry. “Brussels realizes how valuable fishing is and once it’s given away power, it can’t get it back. That is the worry for them, but there’s no doubt that management needs to be a lot more localized with fishermen.”

Dealing with discards

While regional governance continues to be fiercely debated in political circles, on a commercial level the practice of fishermen being forced to discard fish has caused sufficient consumer outrage for it to lead the European fisheries agenda.

According to the European Commission’s “Impact Assessment of Discard Reducing Policies” report published in July 2011, discarding is equivalent to 8 percent or 6.8 million metric tons of the total volume of fish caught annually in the world and 1.3 million metric tons of this discarding occurs in FAO area 27, which includes much of the EU’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In the United Kingdom, for example, the latest figures the government has for discarding in just England and Wales show about one-third of the total catch is discarded dead, which is about 24,000 metric tons. Of that, about half is discarded for what is referred to as “market reasons,” whereby the fish are of a species that fishermen don’t have a market for. The remaining half is split 50-50 between minimum landing sizes and discarding for quota reasons — either the fisherman has no quota or is managing a quota and discarding for financial reasons; some fishermen may not want to land their entire quota at once.

M&J Seafood, part of Europe’s largest foodservice business, the Brakes Group, believes that of all the contributing factors to fish discards there is one that we can all do something about: Fish that can be easily marketed should be eaten.

The company says chefs and restaurateurs have an important role to play in this and it has been urging them to consider utilizing underexploited species.

Yet fisheries reform must play its part. “The CFP must agree on a wholly pragmatic, timely and achievable approach to the reduction and subsequent utilization of discarded fish and seafood,’’ says Mike Berthet, M&J’s director of fish and seafood.

Benyon, meanwhile, has defended Damanaki’s “sensible” proposal for a gradual, species-by-species ban on discards, saying that the blanket ban that many green lobbyists had been pushing for would be dangerous because fishermen could be landing a lot of fish that wouldn’t have previously reached port and for which there would be no end market.

What the minister and his department have discovered is that the discard problem is about the need to create markets for these undesired species as much as it is about a broken European policy.

“We want to see an end to discards, but we don’t want to achieve a system whereby we’ll be putting good fish into landfill because we can’t throw them overboard at sea,” he says.

It should also be noted that many fishermen fear that ending discards would mean lower profits, because they would be forced to land lower-value fish — at present, they can choose only to land the most profitable fish.

Fighting for fish

A powerful contributor to the discard debate is the Fish Fight campaign that was launched in January 2011 to call for a EU-wide ban on the practice of discarding fish at sea. Fish Fight is championed by campaigning chef-broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and to date there are more than 783,000 registered supporters on the Fish Fight website,

Damanaki and Fearnley-Whittingstall met a number of times before the unveiling of her reform proposals but afterward he was disappointed by the final measures, particularly as there was nothing specific mentioned about discards of non-quota species.

“In the early discussions of how a discards ban might go there was talk of ‘phasing in’ — starting with the main quota species. I think that as these [non-quota fish] become more important as food fish they are going to need more careful management to the point that they may become quota species,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall.

“To exempt them from a discard ban may only be a temporary measure. Hopefully, there will be some scope to manage and increase the discard ban to cover whatever species need to be involved.”

He believes there should be proposals that stop the capture of discards in the first place and therefore fishermen need to be incentivized to modify fishing gear to more accurately target species and avoid wasteful bycatch.

“Europe needs to find ways of supporting fishing communities as they transform themselves. Let good practice become the rule, not the exception,” Fearnley-Whittingstall says.

At last count there were more than 70 anti-discard initiatives around Europe. These have been devised either by fishermen, who are finding ways to fish more selectively, or by EU retailers that are delisting species from their supply whenever stocks are endangered or non-selective fishing techniques are used.

However, the anti-discard movement was dealt a heavy blow this February when a new U.K. government report claimed the proposal for an outright ban of commercial discards beginning in 2014 was a “knee-jerk reaction” to the problem.

“We strongly support the Commission’s desire to minimize discarding rates. However, we are concerned that by deciding to implement a ban so swiftly and with so little scope for stakeholder engagement, the Commission risks creating a scheme that will be unworkable and will be flouted, or worse, will merely shift unwanted fish in the sea to unwanted fish on land,” the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee argues. “We suggest it might be advisable to delay the discard ban until 2020 to give time to do the groundwork for its successful implementation.

Expressing Fish Fight’s disappointment in the report, series producer Will Anderson blogged: “It shows just how broken the CFP has become when a committee of MPs come out with a report suggesting that it is a good idea to carry on killing and then throwing away perfectly edible fish at sea.”

Anderson says it is “the politicians’ responsibility” to find solutions to the problem, but stresses that allowing discarding to continue for any longer than outlined in the CFP reform proposals “is not a solution.”

Damanaki, meanwhile, has reiterated that granting more time is not an option and that the discard ban needs to adhere to the clear target dates. “Otherwise, consumers will decide for us and may boycott perfectly good products simply because they no longer accept the waste that goes with them,” she says.

Overseas outrage

While discards and decentralizing decision-making have dominated CFP reform talks, the exploitation of developing nations’ fisheries has been an embarrassment for European policymakers. Illegal fishing in Africa, for example, has an estimated annual value of $1 billion (€770.2 million).

A recent study published by WWF-U.K. reveals that more than 700 EU-flagged fishing vessels now exploit fisheries outside of Europe and while most of these operate legitimately, some are guilty of illicit fishing. In an attempt to crack down on these operations, Damanaki’s reform package contains the proposal that: “Within international bodies and in its relations with third countries, the EU will act abroad as it does at home and promote good governance and a sound management of the sea in the rest of the world.”

Benyon says it’s vital the EU tackles the exploitation of fishing grounds and communities in the developing world by member-state fishing companies.

“It’s all very well the EU getting its own house in order and I hope we damn well do by 2015 but that’s really only part of our impact,” he says. “The EU’s fisheries footprint in the wider world is something we should all be concerned about: The impact we’re having on some very sensitive marine environments in developing countries off the coast of Africa and elsewhere, where fisheries partnership agreements — that the EU signed — are resulting in grotesque overfishing.”

Diluting policies

Damanaki’s proposals have undoubtedly won many friends in many important places but there’s no escaping the fact there are some big countries in the EU that are skeptical about policies contained in the reform package.

Certainly, it has been suggested that Spanish ministers and officials may oppose key aspects of the reform and in particular any changes to the current system of quotas and subsidies. Spain also has the biggest fishing industry in the EU and supplements its own share of European fish resources by buying up rights to fish in other countries, chiefly developing nations.

Even supporters of the reform plan have estimated their number to include only about one-third of MEPs. Therefore, with eight more months to run before the new CFP is introduced, there’s sure to be much more political wrangling, behind-the-scenes deals and compromises.

In appeasing the skeptics, there is a clear indication that in the months to come there will be some dilution of Damanaki’s reforms but just how much watering down will be required, and how recognizable 2013’s finalized CFP will be when compared with the commissioner’s original document, remains to be seen. But she warns that this is a “once in a decade” opportunity to fix EU fisheries and without wholesale reform, which will require short-term sacrifices, the entire European seafood sector will face even more economic pressure and that some fish stocks may be lost.

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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