By November 2014 a new Fisheries Commissioner should be confirmed in office. She/he will be taking on one of the more thankless and toughest jobs the EU has to offer.Already, the handover briefings for the next Commissioner are being briefed. A simple question is what should the new Commissioner focus on?
What Can A Commissioner Really Deliver?
The Commissioner will receive many competing demands from fishermen, fish processors, retailers, chefs, and NGOs, MEPs and national governments. It seems nearly impossible to make everyone agree on any one issue.
As Commissioner Damanaki has shown, the new Commissioner can become key for the future direction of Europe’s fisheries. At the start of her term, the then standard call from some governments and some fishermen to ignore scientific advice on quota setting was issued. She choose to in the main ignore them. Quotas were set more in line with scientific advice than had been the norm, and stock restoration quickened. She backed a tough line for the implementation of already adopted rules against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing. Many countries thought she was bluffing and they were wrong as on Monday 24 March the EU adopted a a fish trade ban on Belize, Guinea and Cambodia. And, Commissioner Damanaki decided to put forward an ambitious reform of the CFP. Many, including myself, thought she’d fail. She was right and I was wrong.
What Can the New Fisheries Commissioner Do?
If I were writing the handover briefing for the new Commissioner I would tempted to settle for a very short briefing and settle on “enforce the IUU rules, implement the discards restrictions, follow the scientific advice, and make sure governments don’t pour too much money into the sea with wasteful fishing subsidies”.
But, if asked to write a longer briefing, I would offer a little more detail.
On Monday 24th March, the EU agreed to ban on the import of fish from Belize, Cambodia and Guinea.
Other countries are under investigation by the European Commission. South Korea, Ghana, Curaco have all be warned to address their fisheries. Banning fish imports from their waters or flagged fleets will be a real shock to the system.
Panama, Fiji, Togo, Sri Lanka and Vanuatu have been given until the spring of 2014 to implement the measures they told the EU Commission they would introduce.
This is shaking up of the fishing industry. Like oil, many of the places in the world were fish are plentiful are in places many would rather not do business. But,a ban on trading with the world’s largest fish market – Europe- will lead some fishing companies finding their supplies cut off. Finding corrupt free fisheries will mean that some staple stocks are hard to find. If companies want to make sure they are operating within the law, they will need to move to other waters or reflag their fleets.
This will put further demands on those fisheries which are both IUU free, let alone sustainable.
But, any expectations from some that the EU will recant from this mission are likely to be disappointed. The EU, like any convert who has exorcised their own demons, is determined to rid IUU fisheries in their own waters and in others waters.
I have spent years following the work of EU abroad. The EU has a team of some of the most able fisheries negotiators out there who go from Regional Fisheries Management organisations (RFMO) to RFMO for months on end. On issues like Blue Fin Tuna I was not on the same side as the EU. But, the new CFP changes the focus, and seems to ordain that the EU go out to the RFMOs and take the case for science based quotas and effective controls and sanctions to international waters. For any new Commissioner, it makes sense that they continue this positive agenda. Europe as a large fish importer needs to make sure the stocks within and outside Europe’s waters are full of fish.
One of the biggest surprises of the new Common Fisheries Policy was the resounding support by nearly all Fishing Ministers and Member of the European Parliament to bring about a ban on discards of fish.
Whilst the CFP did not adopt a straight discard ban, the new restrictions on permissible discards are such a drop from current discarding levels, estimated in some cases to be 50% or more, that meeting the discards commitment will be hard for many fishermen.
It’s important to remember that the discards restrictions were based on the results of successful trials in Denmark and later on in the United Kingdom. Also, technology like CCTV systems, will help fishermen meet many of the requirements that are introduced by retailers under their traceability systems and under the EU’s Control regulation.
However, it is not going to be easy to implement the discards restrictions in all fisheries. Some, in particular the mixed fisheries, will encounter important and serious challenges, in particular when dealing with “choke” species.
Denmark, who had large-scale discards restrictions, addressed many of these same challenges by smart use of the transferability of quota to sectors of the fleet to quota. Also, Denmark, along with Norway, has a well-developed ITQ system, that have made the discards system easier to operate.
However, many other fisheries do not have such an open market system for quota allocation. Many schemes are reminiscent of a feudal era. But, there is nothing to stop any Member State dealing with their fisheries to enable them to meet the discount reduction objectives. And, as most governments own the legal right to the fisheries quota and not the fishermen, the re-allocation by government should be a speedy process. Indeed, as governments have a legal obligation to implement the discards restrictions, a Court will take a dim view of intransigence as an excuse for inaction.
Unfortunately, what has been surprising is that there are few, if any, formal practical suggestions on the table from Member States and industry. Indeed, some countries who have championed regionalization seem to be still under the impression that it is the role of the European Commission to determine by diktats what can and cannot be done in their fisheries.
Indeed, for some countries it’s like the CFP never happened. The reason being is that this new law encourages self-governance and regional decision-making. However, that can only happen if countries and the industry take into their own hands the most appropriate solution to achieve the given objectives. This enables them, as so many have asked for, to use the inherent ingenuity of individuals to deliver solutions to achieve given targets. If this fails, the Commission will be required to go back to blunt command and control instruments.
3. Implement the CFP
Europe is very good passing laws. Indeed, at times it would seem that laws are one of Europe’s best exports. Those of us with a more jaundiced view will realize that Europe’s track record in delivering what it signs up to is less promising.
Already, there is a sustained attack by some from within the fishing industry to get the core elements of the reform removed. This is not surprising, as these same people fought against the central elements of the reform. Their disdain for the architect of the reform, Commissioner Maria Damanaki, is often all too clear.
But, it is not lost on anyone that many industries object to the regulations that are all too often imposed on them. That does not stop governments or the Commission implementing those laws. Indeed, the public would he shocked if governments did.
Subsidies in Europe today to Europe’s fishing industry are around €4.7 billion. This is just under half of the value of the catch.
The new CFP’s weakest element was on subsidies. The new fisheries Commissioner will need to keep a careful eye that taxpayers’ money is not further wasted.
5. From Horse Meat to Fish Meat
The global press has recently woken up to the extent of fraud in our food. Food companies and retailers lost millions of euros, and even more valuable credibility with their customers, over the horse meat scandal.
However, according to press reports, fish fraud appears to be an extensive problem. The practice of passing off cheaper whitefish, doused in a nice sauce, could fool some customers, but it does not fool the DNA tester.
I think it is likely that the extent of this problem is going to be a more public issue over the next 18 months. This could harm retailers and processors. It will force them to use DNA testing equipment and improve their supply chains.
6. Finding the Fish (retailers want to sell)
Many of Europe’s leading retailers have commitments to supply sustainably caught fish. The challenge is that there may not be enough to go around.
The demand for sustainably caught fish is especially strong in Northern Europe and North America. It means that sometimes locally sourced fish, which is deemed not to be sustainable, is not put on the supermarket shelves. Instead, they enter a lower priced secondary market of lower end retailers and food service companies.
This should provide the new Commissioner an important ally. Even politicians have learned you cannot change the laws of the supply and demand, let alone the laws of nature. If the market demands sustainability caught fish, a rational businessman would at the end of the day supply it.
The CFP did not deal with overcapacity. Politicians passed the buck. The Commission’s option to deal with overcapacity was by supporting the introduction of ITQs, which have proven to be an effective, if blunt instrument, to reduce the size of the fleet.
One side-effect of the current economic crisis is that governments do not have the spare cash to buy boats out of the market. That’s always been a particularly ineffective instrument. It costs a lot and has often not taken that much capacity out of the system.
As in any market, this issue will sooner or later have to be addressed. And, the longer it is left to fester, the more painful final shakeup in the marketplace will be. A new Commissioner should allow the market place to deal with overcapacity and not allow EU taxpayer’s cash buy out vessels.
8. Mainstreaming the industry
The fishing industry in many European countries is still dependent on state support via subsidies. In the reform, many governments realized that if the industry faced the harsh reality of proper cost accounting, and the costs of control and management were incorporated, the fishing industry would be a net drain on the country’s finances.
I recall the STECF’s economic assessment of the industry in 2010 when it stated (see page 40):
No industry can, and in particular in a general economic crisis, survive for long if it does not contribute profits. Other firms and industries have sought to ignore this, but they are no longer here to tell the tale.
9. Follow the Science
The information fisheries management has to base its decisions on is very imperfect. The data is often at least one-year-old. This is not an ideal situation. It is built in some ways on the mistrust between fisheries manager and fishermen. This has many origins. The only way to resolve this is by greater co-operation between industry, scientist and regulators. This will take time, likely many years.
But, those countries that have followed the recommendations of scientists on the state of the stocks have seen their stocks grow faster than those who don’t. A new Commissioner should follow the example of countries that have a prosperous fisheries and fisheries industry. The new Commissioner should work to make the industry profitable and viable.
10. Keeping the Politicians Out
As a non-Marxist, I think politicians’ jobs as a rule should be limited. In some ways, the role should be to make the laws and make sure there are implemented. Thereafter they should keep out of the game.
One of the problems of Europe’s fisheries has been that fishing ministers intervene, often at the industry’s request, on the most detailed issues. One new minister from one country was surprised to receive a delegation from his country’s fishing industry to lobby for the continued cash of a dogfish quota of under a few tones and demands for subsidies (often better known as corporate welfare handouts).
Secondly, for civil servants in some countries this is one of the few remaining areas where they see their work have a direct impact. It is like they get to taste power. Now, fortunately government’s role has been heavily reduced. It would be a good thing if governments kept their role to the minimum in fisheries.
Commissioner Damanki had a certain detachment from the world micromanagement. She looked at the rules and tended to recommend that they be followed. When industry and their governments lobbied to have the rules changed or ignored, she as a rule she declined to listen.
This to me seems the ideal position that the next Commissioner should take. They should look at the rules, double-check to see if some manifest error of fact or law has been made, and if not, implement the rules.
It has the side benefit that fisheries Councils can be finished in under an hour and Fishing Ministers can go home to early to spend more time with their families.