A number of institutions are involved in deciding how much fish can be harvested from the sea
Fishing quotas have an immediate impact on the players in the fisheries sector and the release of the numbers is closely watched by all concerned. The route by which raw data is converted into the precise figures that are published as fishing quotas is long, with inputs from several institutions, and gives an idea of the enormous significance attached to these numbers.
Fish, individually or in swarms, can usually be found in places offering them the best for their lives: where they find food, where it is safe to reproduce and survive as species. Such preferences, together with environmental conditions, may vary from year to year, and hence the number of fish coming together may vary as well. Fishermen know where to find the fish and are familiar with annual fluctuations. Fishing grounds, when seen as fish habitats, do not feature national borders, whereas fishing vessels carry the flags of their home ports. Fish stocks which are international by nature thus have national owners when turned into catches. The subsets of these fishable stocks allocated to and harvested by sovereign states are called fishing quotas.
A very brief history of quotas
Fishing quotas in Europe have only a brief history which started after the two World Wars in the last century. Scientists noted that fishery resources in the North Sea increased in abundance after the wars and concluded that this was not unconnected to the notable decline of fishing due to wartime conditions. Fishing regulations were introduced regarding type and use of gear and were later extended to the amount of harvest, i.e. quotas. The regulatory efforts ultimately lead to the Law-of-the-Sea Conferences and the establishment of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in 1982.
In Europe today, fishing quotas are issued to member countries by the European Commission (EC). They have been fixed, largely according to the country’s historical share of the specific resource, however the number of fish available as quotas varies from year to year and is set by the annual total allowable catch for a species (TAC). The TAC is set by the ministers’ council but based on a process which is first and foremost a scientific exercise, performed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and complemented in a second process by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee of the EC (STECF).
An international body of scientists produces the advice on which quotas are based
ICES is an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1902 that provides advice on over 120 fish and shellfish stocks in the North Atlantic. Producing the science underpinning the ICES advice is a sophisticated and carefully supervised process. The Expert Groups are essential to the process and constitute the engine room of the organisation. The Expert Groups bring together scientists from the 20 member countries, who share data, knowledge and scientific methods. The Expert Groups represent a plethora of different science fields ranging from methodological approaches and analyses to the exploration of new and emerging sectors of science which may be relevant for estimating the number of fish in the oceans. An important task for many Expert Groups is the coordination of the independent ecosystem and fisheries surveys run by member states on an annual basis. These surveys are essential to produce independent and reproducible data, which, together with the landing data recorded by the fishing fleets, go into the scientists’ calculations. The work of the Expert Groups is publicly available and is subject to peer review in the proper sense of the word, by other Expert Groups during the cooperation process or during ICES’ Annual Science Conference.
Producing the advice on the annual catches (but also on ecosystem and environmental issues) starts with the assessment report of an Expert Group which is reviewed by the so-called advice drafting groups. The paper written by that group, the first draft of the advice, is then reviewed by external experts and their comments and views are considered by the drafting panel. The final product is then evaluated by the ICES Advisory Committee (ACOM) which gives its blessing to the advice. The process is entirely transparent and reproducible. Observers from the industry and from NGO’s are allowed to sit in the drafting panels and on ACOM. There are different categories of advice according to the limitations of the data base that was available for the assessments. For instance, stocks which were assessed exploiting a data-rich environment, or stocks where the assessment bears a certain risk of uncertainty due to data-poor situations. Central to the process of producing the advice is the quality assurance process in ICES which includes benchmarking the data, the assessment models and other methods (e.g., ageing the fish) and the review process.
The numbers that come with the ICES advice delivered to the European Commission (and to some non-EU ICES member countries individually), are the MSY-based total catches (or technically speaking the fishing mortality) for each stock (of a species). ICES considers the ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle in its advice with a view to producing an integrated, truly sustainable perspective. To satisfy the full context of what sustainable stands for, social and economic considerations are “added” by a second process run by the STECF (for the EU). Basically, the same data and partly the same scientists are used in this process with some additional data and expertise.
The role of the European Commission
The EC then has the total catches as well as the economic and social trade-offs in its hands that come with the numbers. ICES usually presents the advice in a face-to-face meeting in Brussels and explains the numbers and their background. However, ICES advice is considered a scientific recommendation which is subject to the subsequent process of negotiations within the European community and its decision-making bodies. First of all, the Commission processes the scientific advice and makes a proposal of total allowable catches (and other regulations) to the European Council. The process is not entirely transparent and includes political considerations, which are however based on the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU. The next step is the negotiations of the quotas. The fishery ministers cannot negotiate the quota which are fixed by country but only the total allowable catches per stock (or species). For an increasing number of stocks, the framework for those negotiations are the multi-annual management plans agreed by the parties with fishing interests in the stocks. They usually fix fishing opportunities as a direct consequence of the latest evaluation of the stock status. However, there is a certain flexibility with regards to catches for a given year in relation to catches for subsequent years within the management plan. In addition to the quota, technical measure can be discussed, such as gear modifications, minimum length of the landed fish, closed areas or time limitations. Such measures, however, may require changes in legislation. It is here where the European Parliament comes into play.
The European Parliament is one of the key players in quota negotiations
It is a political body which certainly recognizes the scientific facts and recommendations but which may base its decisions on ideological, that is, party-driven considerations. The Fisheries Committee, one of the standing committees of the European Parliament, advises the EU Parliament on TAC’s. The final total allowable c
atches released by the EU for the stocks in its waters are the result of negotiations between the member country governments (the ministers), the EU administration (the Commission) and the European Parliament. It has been the case that the EU Council (of fisheries ministers) and European Parliament could not agree on catch legislation. This has for instance resulted in overfishing of North Sea cod in 2013. Another example is Atlantic mackerel which in 2010 saw a proliferation all across the North Atlantic even into Greenland waters. There was no agreement on the scientific advice and ministers could not agree on catches. The entire political decision-making process would greatly benefit from more transparency at all levels and from more scientific input at those points where the appropriate structure already exists, for instance the Fisheries Committee of the EU Parliament.
In addition, and further complicating the picture, there are negotiations on catches of shared stocks which migrate between EU and non-EU waters. Here, Council and Commission negotiate with the countries in question with no direct involvement of EU fishery ministers. Other bodies, such as Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO), are also involved. Given the anticipated Brexit, it will be interesting to see how such negotiations affect the entire system as the UK’s departure from the EU increases the number of shared stocks, e.g. in the North Sea. Full attention may fall on Scotland as it holds the quota for quite a few stocks.
Sustainability is increasingly recognised by fishermen
Going back to the starting point, the ICES advice on certain stocks has been zero-take in the past, for instance on North Sea cod in the early 2000’s with a view to allowing the stock to recover after some weak years of recruitment. This was usually followed by lowered but nevertheless substantial allowable catches decided by the ministers and adopted by the Council. When a fish stock is recovering by means of a strong year class that can grow, spawn, and contribute to the biomass of the future stock, it is sometimes difficult to communicate that the fishery must allow for this in order to safeguard the harvest of tomorrow. However, the perception of the fishermen is a different one. What they see is the fish in abundance and usually fisheries ministers have a sympathetic ear for their clients. Fortunately, the views of modern fishermen are changing and sustainability is often no longer considered a future event, but today’s core value.
The distribution of national catch allocations is entirely a sovereign task of member countries, within and outside the EU. Catches are in accordance with management plans and national quotas are attached to vessels in most states. Quotas are usually individually transferable, that means negotiable between vessel owners or resource managers. The side effect though is that quotas can also be transferred or sold to companies who can acquire quotas from individual fishermen. Quotas, on the background of a multi-year management plan can be transferred to the following year but only to a certain extent. Transferring a quota to the next year implies in many countries that the quota for that following year cannot be fully exploited which usually leads to exploiting the full quota in a given year. In addition, the value of a quota depends on the market value of a fish in a given year. Thus the incentive provided to fishermen does not encourage a positive investment into the future. Transferable quotas have led to concentration in many if not all EU and associated countries. For instance, in Denmark some big food companies have succeeded purchasing quota from small scale and artisanal fisheries over the past decade. In some places this had severe impacts on the local culture with the loss of a long tradition. It should be noted that often a local fishing tradition has included an understanding of sustainable fishing practices. A similar trend is visible in Spain, though with a different business model between the industry and the fishermen. On the other hand, although transferable quotas initially lead to a painful process of regional concentration and the demise of regional tradition and culture (and hence significant loss of jobs and identity), Iceland today may be an example of a broad spread of quotas given the size of the country and the contribution of fisheries to the economy.
Artisanal fisheries are important for the survival of coastal communities
There is a trend in Europe towards bigger and flexible fishing vessels which are able to meet the challenges of mixed and multiple-species fisheries. It allows for a more balanced practice and management of the portfolio of quotas allocated to fishermen. However, the quota system as it is now threatens small and artisanal fisheries which can still be found across Europe, and which most often contribute an important element of local or regional culture. The attractiveness of harbours and coastal villages is often closely related to the local fishermen and their work, and it is only by maintaining the latter that the former can be preserved.