Fishing industry leaders in EU North Sea member states and Norway are working together to try to find ways to ensure that the final TAC agreed after the autumn and December Fisheries Council negotiations is much smaller than this, reports Tim Oliver.
Cod is a significant component of the valuable North Sea mixed demersal fishery as well being an iconic species that until this year had been recovering strongly after being under threat since the millennium, and subject to the EU cod recovery plan introduced in 2014 to rebuild the stock. But ICES scientists say the stock is again at risk, with poor recruitment in recent years, and is recommending a two-thirds cut in the 2020 North Sea cod TAC.
A cut of the magnitude being recommended by scientists on the basis of maximum sustainable yield (MSY) targets would be a severe economic blow for the North Sea fishery. With the added element of the landing obligation now applying to all quota species, a two-thirds cut in cod would threaten to choke the entire North Sea mixed demersal fishery well before the end of 2020. Cod quota would be quickly exhausted, forcing fishing vessels to tie up early with quotas of species such as haddock, saithe, whiting and hake uncaught.
The dangerous situation has concentrated minds and industry leaders from the UK, Denmark and Norway are trying to develop ‘bottom-up’ cod avoidance measures on their own initiative they hope will persuade the European Commission that the severe cut in the TAC being recommend by ICES should be greatly reduced.
The industry aims to come up with a programme of measures that will persuade the EU that fishermen are cutting back significantly on cod catches and so head off pressure for a big TAC cut.
The UK, particularly Scotland, has the biggest stake in the fishery and is ready to take all steps it can to reduce effort on cod and to develop measures to avoid concentrations of cod. But skippers say any measures introduced must apply to all countries fishing in the North Sea and not just to Scotland and the rest of the UK.
They met their opposite numbers from Denmark and Norway, who are also concerned at the scientific advice at the end of August. The aim is to try to agree on a programme of measures to keep vessels away from high densities of cod that would apply across the board to countries fishing in the North Sea.
Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA) said the association held what he described as “a very well attended meeting” on the weekend before the meeting with Denmark and Norway that had strongly supported an international approach.
“There was an appetite to do as much as we can to recover the cod and there was a big emphasis on equivalence. The view expressed was ‘this can’t be just us; this has got to be everybody’ – there has to be a collective approach,” he said.
He said the view of his association is that the current scientific advice in terms of FMSY TAC is “unmanageable” and emphasised that past experience with efforts to rebuild cod stocks showed that heavy TAC cuts did not necessarily work.
“We wanted to put North Sea cod into a fisheries improvement programme (FIP) supported by an action plan and we wanted to come to some common agreement as to what that should be,” said Mike Park.
“We thought it would be useful to bring in the Norwegians as well because a number of Norwegian vessels use gill nets in Scottish waters to catch cod. The meeting at the end of August was a discussion about what measures to protect cod might look like.”
They could include seasonal closures to protect aggregations, some small permanent closures and real time closures to protect unexpected abundances of cod in areas beyond where skippers would normally find them.
Plans cover deal or no-deal Brexit
The legal deadline for the UK to leave the EU/CFP is 31st October but at the time of writing it was not known whether a deal could or would be agreed in time for that date.
With a deal there will be a two-year transitional period in which nothing changes, but if the UK leaves without a deal it would assume complete control over its waters from 1st November. Mike Park pointed out that the approach being taken by the three countries covers all eventualities.
“Originally we didn’t think there was anything we could do within the EU to bind everybody in in the short term but it came to light that the technical conservation regulation that came in on 14th August provides the opportunity to put in place a delegated act,” he said.
“The process would be that the Scheveningen group (the group of scientists and senior officials from the North Sea member states that advises the Commission) would come forward with a joint recommendation as to the measures they would like to see in place. The Commission would check its scientific rigour and it would then go to the EU Parliament and Council and if there were no objections it would become EU law and would also apply to Norwegian vessels in EU waters. So we’ve got both avenues covered in terms of binding everyone in. If we stay in in 2019 we’ve got the technical conservation regulation and if we crash out and we’ve got control of our waters and measures would apply to everybody,” he said, adding that cutting the TAC doesn’t necessarily reduce mortality.
“We’ve got to learn lessons from the past so that’s why we’re looking at a range of other measures to keep vessels away from high densities of cod. The last time we allowed the Commission to come up with their own initiative they closed half the North Sea, with decommissioning and everything that followed,” he said.
“So we’re keen to be sure there’s a bottom-up plan. The industries will talk to one another and their own respective governments and everyone will work together to produce something that’s both reasonable and sensible. We believe there’s a reasonable argument to try to mitigate the TAC reduction if we agree to put in place cod avoidance measures.”
Anonymous. (2019). JOINT EFFORTS TO HEAD OFF NORTH SEA COD CUT. [Blog]. JOINT EFFORTS TO HEAD OFF NORTH SEA COD CUT. Available at: https://www.worldfishing.