UK and Ireland welcome EU fisheries outcomes amid Brexit fears; NGOs disappointed

Two days of intense talks at the annual Agrifish Council in Brussels have resulted in a deal that has been generally welcomed by fishing leaders in the United Kingdom and Ireland. In addition to securing increased quotas for some key stocks in the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, a workable solution was found for fishermen facing the introduction of the European Union Landing Obligation next month.

For the United Kingdom, fishing opportunities agreed for next year include an extra 25 percent for west Scotland monkfish, 28 percent more western hake, and 10 percent more skate and rays in the English Channel. Ireland will see a 30 percent increase in its whitefish quotas for northwest fishermen, 18 percent more western horse mackerel and an additional 35 percent Atlanto Scandia herring.

Speaking as the council drew to a close, U.K. Fisheries Minister George Eustice said that he welcomed the quota increases in what was “a particularly challenging year of negotiations” for all member states.

“We entered into discussions knowing that a good deal needed to carefully balance progress towards sustainability targets, while ensuring that we listen to the scientific evidence on the health of fish stocks and safeguard a profitable future for our hard-working fleet,” he said.

Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) CEO Seán O’Donoghue said that with Brexit continuing to cause major turbulence in the industry, these were “without doubt” the most challenging negotiations which Irish fisheries have ever faced and he lauded the whitefish increases as “very significant wins.” 

Of major concern to the KFO and the wider industry was the landing obligation, which is entering its final phase on 1 January, 2019, when all species subject to total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas become subject to Article 15 of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). However, to mitigate a potential “choke” situation, the council adopted a solution that implements enhanced inter-area and inter-species flexibility. It also created a new quota exchange mechanism for member states without a quota for bycatch in five fisheries: cod in the Celtic sea and west of Scotland, whiting in the Irish sea and west of Scotland, and plaice in the southwestern part of Area 7.

The agreement also includes a commitment to review scientific data as the new regulation comes into effect.

In a statement, Scotland Fisheries Secretary Fergus Ewing said that finding a resolution to the choke risks had been a priority going into the negotiations and that he was “very happy” that a workable solution had been identified for cod and whiting stocks in particular. 

“I’m sure that news will be welcomed wholeheartedly by the west of Scotland fishing industry, along with the potential to review the discard ban, should it be deemed necessary to stop any unintended consequences on our fishermen," Ewing said. “Of course, there's a lot more work yet to be done before 1 January to prepare Scotland’s fleet for what may be a very challenging year ahead, but we will be working closely with industry – as ever – to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for Scottish fishermen.”

Ewing added that one of the side-effects of Brexit is that there is no guarantee that Scotland and the U.K. government will have a vote on what happens for the foreseeable future.

"So it’s more important than ever that we do everything in our power to make the most of the current deal – as it could be in place for some time," he said.

Mike Park, CEO of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA) said the dynamics of negotiations this year were always going to be complicated given full introduction of the landing obligation and the fact that Brexit may result in this being the last fisheries council the U.K. participates in as a fully-fledged member state.

"The outcome is less than what we hoped but as much as was possible under the circumstances, Park said. "The important outcome is that our fleets should now be able to fully utilize the opportunities available to them in 2019.”  

NGOs are less enamored by the new arrangements. For example, the Our Fish campaign slammed the E.U. fisheries ministers for not following scientific advice when setting some of the quotas. It said that following this year’s council meeting, iconic fish stocks such as cod in the Skattegat and North Sea, herring, and eel remain under severe threat from overfishing. 

“By choosing to set fishing limits above scientific advice for many stocks, they have ignored European citizens and all of the evidence that shows ending overfishing will deliver healthy fish stocks, more jobs and security for coastal communities,” said Rebecca Hubbard, program director for Our Fish. 

“Along with global biodiversity loss and climate change, overfishing is having a devastating effect on the ocean. E.U. fisheries ministers could have simply and immediately alleviated that threat by following scientific advice, yet they keep trying to negotiate the limits of nature. It’s time they faced reality by acknowledging the destruction decades of overfishing has caused, and act on the responsibility invested in them by European citizens, who expected them to deliver a historic end to E.U. overfishing.”

Echoing this view, Andrew Clayton, project director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Overfishing in Northwestern Europe Campaign, critized the council's decisions.

"With only one more year before the 2020 legal deadline to end overfishing, ministers can’t afford to continue to take such risks," he said. "It is also extremely troubling that the E.U. institutions have chosen to adopt new delaying tactics and loopholes, maintaining the status quo at the expense of long-term sustainability."


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