EU fisheries chiefs need to take stock

The discard ban could wreck the industry, warns Mike Park
The waters around Scotlands northern shores have seen an increase in the abundance of cod. Picture: Julie BullThe waters around Scotlands northern shores have seen an increase in the abundance of cod. Picture: Julie Bull
The waters around Scotlands northern shores have seen an increase in the abundance of cod. Picture: Julie Bull

EVERY year, just before Christmas, fishermen from around Europe wait anxiously for news of decisions in Brussels which will determine how much fish they will be able to land over the next 12 months.

The December Fisheries Council never plays Santa Claus, so expectations among the men who risk life and limb to bring our most nutritious form of food to tables around the continent are usually low. If the quota cuts are not as swingeing as had been anticipated, it is always viewed by managers as a victory of sorts.

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This year, however, the politicians and bureaucrats who sit in judgement on the fishing industry will seriously have to rethink their gift-giving philosophy.

Why? Because if they don’t, they will quickly find they have introduced a new policy – the landings obligation, or discard ban – which will slowly bring large swathes of the EU fishing industry to its knees.

It is now abundantly clear that the Fisheries Council must seize the opportunity this year to set in motion significant changes to help alleviate some of the difficulties faced by the industry before the ban is introduced from January 2016.

For example, the waters around Scotland’s northern shores have seen an increase in the abundance of cod that is unparalleled in recent times. Yet because of an imaginary management demarcation line, originally put in place to keep the Spanish out, we are only allowed to harvest stock east of the line and are forced to discard fish caught to its west.

A zero catch was set for west of the line in 2014 and fishermen were expected magically to avoid cod while targeting other species such as haddock, monkfish and saithe.

There is a clear lack of urgency in both the scientific community and the European Commission to understand more fully the distribution characteristics of cod.

This lack of understanding will have a calamitous effect on the Scottish fleet with the introduction of the ban on discarding fish. It will affect the fleet profoundly because the new rules mean that all fishing must stop when you exhaust the first quota. Given that we have no quota, and so no fishing, for cod west of the line it is easy to see why the temperature in the fishing industry is rising so steadily.

Work has just been completed on haddock, which shows the North Sea and West of Scotland stocks to be one and the same; it will now be managed as one stock. Quota adjustments will apply to both areas at the same time, reflecting the real situation.

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Continuing to ignore the reality of nature and the relative abundance and mix of species when setting quotas only perpetuates the myth that fishers are largely to blame for discards when this is simply not the case.

We know that the cod stock to the west of Shetland is the very same as the cod stock to the east of Shetland – a stock we are allowed to harvest in steadily increasing amounts due to its increasing abundance.

The introduction of the discard ban is as significant a change for the fisheries sector as those dealt with by our forefathers, who moved from sail to steam, from steam to diesel and from drift net to pelagic trawl.

They managed those changes; but unless we begin to understand the magnitude of the issues we face, this time around, few fishermen will be left to tell the tale.

All eyes will be on Brussels once again on 15 December. Perhaps, for once, the Fisheries Council will behave like the three wise men and come bearing gifts – real gifts.

• Mike Park is chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association