The UK Government released a White Paper outlining their intention for replacing the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) on Wednesday. On Thursday Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Fisheries Fergus Ewing condemned the document as a Westminster “power grab” – power over fisheries has long been devolved to Holyrood (and the Senedd and Stormont). Here’s a quick summary of our view on what the White Paper means for sustainable Scottish seafood.
As has been established elsewhere in the Brexit proceedings, despite leaving the EU in March 2019, the UK will in effect follow EU fishing rules in 2019 and 2020, only by 2021 will we have properly Brexited from a fisheries perspective. The White Paper is essentially therefore setting out the long term plan for after 2020, as well as a few clauses which will mean it can adapt EU legislation in the interim transition period if necessary.
Although fisheries management is fully devolved to Scottish Government (and Governments of Northern Ireland and Wales), each of those countries currently operate within the overarching EU-wide framework, the CFP, and following UK-wide agreements. To replace the CFP following Brexit, the UK/Westminster Government has apparently taken the approach of developing a new UK-wide framework for fisheries itself, and then seeking to cooperate with the devolved governments in its implementation.
What does it say?
Well, the White Paper says a lot and if you’ve got the time we would recommend reading it. We’re working on improving the health of our sea, and the sustainability of our seafood, so here are a few points worth picking out from that perspective;
“This white paper recognises healthy fish stocks are the first step to vibrant commercial and recreational fishing industries, and prioritises a healthy marine environment.”
Priority for a healthy marine environment should be welcomed. Unfortunately, many decisions regarding our fisheries in the past have prioritised profits over the marine environment, leading to widespread damage and decline in the health of our seas. We’ve highlighted a few during the past two years, including the events of Loch Carron leading to destruction on a Flame shell reef, and the out-of-control wild wrasse fishery.
The White Paper proposes this will be done, in part, by pursuing an ecosystem approach to fisheries management – something the Westminster Government has already committed to in its 25-Year Environmental Plan. The aim is that such an approach will “account for, and seek to minimize impacts on non-commercial species and the marine environment more generally”, all things we as an organisation working to improve the health of our sea and sustainability of our fisheries support.
Furthermore, the White Paper notes that “effective management is required to reduce, offset and where possible avoid, those fishing activities which have negative impacts on the health of the marine environment”. A proactive approach to managing the impact of fishing on our marine environment is refreshing to hear. However, as has been noted by others, whilst the White Paper shows an intention to reduce seabird and cetacean bycatch in fisheries, clearly a fishery that prioritises the marine environment would see these things eliminated in their entirety.
“The UK Government will… restore and maintain fish stocks at least to levels that can produce Maximum Sustainable Yield.”
Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) is a no brainer approach to setting catch limits. In simple terms it just means a level which delivers the most amount of fish you can catch in a year without jeopardizing future years.
The UK (and its devolved Administrations) are already obliged to be fishing all species at MSY by 2020 under the EU’s CFP. Unfortunately it is highly unlikely we will achieve this given we fish several hundred stocks and only fish 30-odd at MSY levels. Unfortunately, with no deadline the target set here is also less good than our current system. However, the ambition to recover should be welcome and will hopefully mean some attention is given to those stocks which remain in degraded state, such as West of Scotland cod, which is so depleted that we currently have a recommended catch limit of 0.
Statements made regarding mixed fisheries (where the paper commits to “taking account of interactions between species and the wider marine ecosystem”) also appear to show a reasonably sensible approach to managing fisheries with lots of bycatch, and a commitment to adopt catch limits and precautionary management that conserve stocks for which no data are available will also mean that issues such as that in the wrasse fishery (noted above) would not be permitted in the future.
To inform the setting of these limits, the paper indicates the UK Govt will continue to follow advice from ICES, and that Defra will produce annual statements on the state of our fish stocks. This is something Marine Scotland already do for our waters.
“We will be seeking to move away from relative stability towards a fairer and more scientific method for future TAC shares.”
UK fisheries currently have access to a share of EU fish stocks based on the amount caught by UK vessels in the 1970s – so called ‘relative stability’ . Due to climate change and changing fishing practices, this has no longer aligns well with fish being caught by UK vessels – hake being the prime example, where the species has moved northward, apparently in response to climate change.
The White Paper therefore states that this system will be dropped. As a consequence (though subject to further negotiations with the EU), UK Government expect that there will be more UK quota to go around from 2021 onwards and therefore have also considered what they might do with their Brexit Bonus bream…
“The fish in our seas… are a public resource and therefore the rights to catch them are a public asset”
This bonus quota is actually what all the fish fighting in the press has been about. Lots of different groups want access to it, and many have diverging views on how it should be dished out.
Notably, the current system allows for situations where quota is consolidated to a handful of companies and ports and ultimately leads to situations such as the one Greenpeace identified, where 3 companies own 61% of the English and Welsh fishing quota. There have therefore been calls from around the fishing industry to review the way that the right to catch fish is given.
Despite a fair amount of pressure, the White Paper has not proposed a change to the current system when it comes to the existing quota – though it sets out to ‘review conditions’ and ensure that all vessels “produce genuine economic benefits for UK coastal communities dependent on fisheries” – but it does propose a system which may allow for a different approach for the bonus, specifically in England.
The plan suggests that, in England, the bonus quota will be put into a reserve which may be used to incentivise adherence with the discard ban; sell back to the industry, in order to raise revenue; provide for parts of the industry currently without quota (potentially the low impact, artisan fishers), and/or; give to recreational anglers.
Notably, this only covers England, and so it will be interesting to see whether Scottish Government now plans to establish its own reserve for the Brexit bonus, and if so, how it plans to use it. Given the Scottish Government’s staunch anti-Brexit approach, it will be interesting to see how they present this.
“The UK Government remains fully committed to ending the wasteful discarding of fish and wants to work with the industry to address this issue.”
Discarding has historically led to millions of fish being wasted at sea. This has reduced over time and, under the CFP, should be entirely banned by 2019. Despite it generally being seen as a problem that should be stopped, and some 870,000 people signing a petition to call for it to be banned, Scottish Fisheries Minister Fergus Ewing has not been very supportive of it. It is therefore welcome to see the White Paper reaffirm this commitment.
Noting the challenges of choke species, the paper proposes that reserve quota be made available to those stuck in a choke situation (where a vessel catches fish for which it has no quota). It also notes a few other options that Defra is “considering”, including electronic monitoring at sea “to promote compliance”; promotion of selective gears and avoidance of high risk areas, i.e. closing areas off where high rates of bycatch are caught.
Whilst these sound like good options and should be prioritised, the White Paper also considers that one solution in England may be to remove some species from the quota system entirely so they are no longer a choke risk. This is a somewhat dangerous precedent, and is not something we are welcoming at all – it is difficult to see how Defra remain “fully committed” if one of their approaches is to remove species from the ban.
“Instead of the current ‘under 10 metre’ category, [in England] we will consider a variety of potential options including limits to engine power and restrictions on where such vessels can fish.”
Vessels under 10m in length have generally been considered separately from those over 10m because of their assumed lesser efficiency in catching fish and impact on the marine environment. Things have changed in recent years though and even small vessels may now be fitted with powerful engines or use damaging gears, and the White Paper outlines options to change this categorisation.
The White Paper appears to recognise that many parts of the small scale fleet have a relatively low impact on the marine environment, are ‘artisanal’ and have “close ties to their coastal communities”. It therefore aims to use “vessel monitoring and electronic catch reporting” to “provide increased fishing opportunities” to this part of the industry. Clearly, increased transparency, and improved opportunity for the low impact, artisan sector is something we have pushed for before, and would welcome in the future.
The White paper is clear here that it only regards English fisheries, so again we will be interested to see how Scottish Government respond for our own fleets, and in our waters.
“Robust systems need to be in place as we leave the EU to protect UK waters from illegal or irresponsible fishing activities.”
The White Paper set out a desire to see a “diverse fleet using efficient, modern technology” where “those who are compliant [with regulations] are able to fish and those that are not cannot”.
In order that they may establish and demonstrate compliance (and therefore continue to have access to international trade) Defra will also aim to ensure technology is in place to monitor activities of fishing vessels. In particular they set out a desire to see “those who have the highest impact on stocks and ecosystems will be subject to the tightest requirements”.
We’ve raised the issue of illegal dredging before in Scotland. This is clearly a problem that has shown no sign of going away. We continue to push for better vessel monitoring, in part to address this illegality issue, but also so that the supply chain can better understand where it is buying from and its potential risks.
“The outcome of this process will be an increase in the decision-making power of each of the Devolved Administrations”
The White Paper has ostensibly been drafted by Westminster Government with only some minor involvement from the Devolved Administrations. This is worrying , in particular because it does not align well with the recommendations of the Smith Commission and the wider issue of devolution to Scotland. If future fisheries management is to be successful it needs to be developed in a way that respects devolution and the powers and responsibilities of UK’s devolved Parliaments.
The paper does, however, argue that UK-wide frameworks are needed in order to enable i) functioning of an internal UK seafood market; ii) deliver international obligations (i.e. those where the UK is the signatory); iii) allow the UK Department for International Trade (trade is still reserved) to negotiate new trade deals; iv) manage stocks that cross national borders; v) enforce issues which cross UK borders, and; vi) “safeguard the security of the UK”.
It states that the composition and the scope of any framework has not yet been agreed and work continues with devolved administrations – it appears a fair amount of work is still needed here then!
Seafood trade, and EU access to UK fish stocks will be negotiated separately.
The white paper is so adamant that this will be the case, it resorts to tautology – “Access to markets for fisheries products will be agreed as part of our future economic partnership, just as with other goods and food products. This is separate to the question of fishing opportunities and access to waters, which consequently will be addressed separately…”
Whilst this will settle some nerves in the industry where many have raised concerns about “our waters being negotiated away”, it is difficult to see how it will happen in practice. Especially when we consider that differences in EU and UK fisheries policy will influence competition between the two, and that such alignment will be a fundamental aspect of the EU’s approach to developing future trading relationships.
“…And for consumers”
The White Paper only mentions the role of NGOs and environmentalists a handful of times. Whilst this is disappointing to see, and appears to overlook the useful role both have played in improving the health of our seas and sustainability of our seafood to date, amongst the ambitions set out by Rt Hon Gove in his foreword, is to establish a future that is good for consumers of seafood. This is something which should be widely welcomed, and an opportunity seafood consumers should take.
We have no idea how they intend to do this, but engaging the customers of our great seafood selection can only be a good thing.
What Doesn’t It Say?
As has already been stated by several other groups, there is not a lot of actual proposals in the White Paper. For the most part it sets out intentions, some of which are welcome, but it’s not clear which will actually make it through into policy and action.
Many of our fisheries are miles away from sustainability. Scallops, for example, are not a quota species and so have no catch limit. There is also no mechanism in place to manage effort for scallop dredging. Meanwhile scientific advice is to reduce the footprint and the number caught in Scotland. The White Paper offers no real solutions to situations such as this. Such situations need a comprehensive, long term body of work to move the fishery into a sustainable place (one is now partly taking place in the Channel). However, in the White Paper, the rhetoric around “Promoting Sustainable Fisheries” does not properly rise to the challenge of these issues.
A lot appears to be left up to the Devolved Administrations to resolve or agree at a later date – as stated in the document, “work continues with the Devolved Administrations”. By overlooking some of the issues the Devolved Administrations will face, the White Paper not only overlooks some significant constitutional issues, it also overlooks some significant areas of sea and fish stocks.
The future of seafood in the UK will also clearly be heavily influenced by the trade relationships we settle on post Brexit. If there is no efficient customs arrangement with the EU we can expect the fresh and live industries which currently export to the continent to drastically change. If we set up a free trade deal with the US, we can also expect to see more frozen lobsters arriving in our retail outlets.
During this summary, we’ve returned to the issue of devolution a number of times. In our view it is fundamental, and must be gotten right at the earliest stage.
Scottish waters represent about 70% of the UK’s and, in 2016 about 60% of the UK’s total landed value was done so by Scottish vessels. It is clear that a UK policy – to the extent that it is constitutional to have one – could not be truly a UK policy without due consideration, and involvement of the Scottish Government.
In this event, based on the statements made by Scottish Government, it appears that the White Paper has not involved Scottish Government to a satisfactory degree. Unfortunately this appears not to be the only White Paper where the Devolved Administrations are not being brought into the drafting process.
Specifically from a Scottish perspective this is troublesome, not least because it appears to renege on recommendations of the Smith Commission (set up by David Cameron in response to the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum), which specifically states,
“Full control of environmental policy, including taxation, would allow for a more coherent approach including environmental aspects of energy, marine nature conservation and planning, and marine renewables. These powers should extend to 200 nautical miles or the limit of UK competence for marine environment management and regulation, including environmental aspects of shipping”
Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing has clearly seen the approach taken in drafting the White Paper without his Government’s involvement as a power grab, and has taken to the press to make that clear.
Whilst we have empathy for this position, it should also be noted that Fergus is himself failing a manifesto commitment to deliver an Inshore Fisheries Bill for Scotland – something (as we’ve pointed out before) that is badly needed to help recover our inshore marine environment and put its fisheries on a more sustainable footing. By failing to step up to the plate himself, he appears to be both impatiently waiting for Westminster and frustrated when it takes the lead.
We want to see a healthier marine environment and lots more truly sustainable seafood on our plates. From this perspective, the White Paper does set out some useful targets and aspirations for our fisheries and marine environment. Though it’s not entirely clear how they will be delivered and we had yet to fully digest everything that has been said, we particularly welcome the prioritisation of a healthy marine environment, the commitments to both the discard ban and MSY, the ambitions for fisheries which use and benefit from modern monitoring technology and approaches, and the plans to use any extra quota gained in Brexit negotiations to benefit the low impact, smaller-scale fisheries. However, unless Scotland is actually involved in this process, it would seem that such ambitions are not applicable, taking account of, or very relevant to a large chunk of UK waters.