The Common Fisheries Policy – is it all bad?

A closer look at the CFP shows that if it did not exist, we would need to re-invent it.

One of the many challenges facing the Government as the UK leaves the European Union is how to manage UK fisheries. Ministers and officials are looking to introduce new legislation that will set out who can fish where and how much fish they can catch and will be putting forward proposals in the coming weeks. Central to discussions around these issues is the extent to which we may, or may not, continue to be subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, or CFP.

Many in the fishing industry, especially in the catching sector, are looking forward to the day that we can throw off the shackles of the CFP. All the industry’s ills are laid at its door and leaving the EU is seen as an opportunity to re-write the rule book. But much of this is based on a mis-reading of the past and a misunderstanding of what the CFP really is. When you look more closely at the core of the CFP, and what it is trying to achieve, it is difficult to see that it can be replaced by anything that is much different.

The first thing to say is that the CFP is not simple. It is big and complicated. It is not one policy, but a package of policies, all aimed at managing European fishing fleets, conserving fish stocks and allowing all fishers to compete fairly in the marketplace. 

It covers areas such as trade in fish and fish products. A highlight of this is the requirement that all fish is properly labelled so we know what fish we, as consumers, are buying and where it came from. There is an international element to the CFP. With a quarter of fish taken by EU vessels coming from waters outside the EU, international policies and agreements are of vital importance. And, of direct value to the fishing industry, there is the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which provides financial support for delivering all aspects of the CFP.

These wider policies are important. But they are not the focus of fishing industry and press attention.  It is the final piece of the CFP jigsaw that is in the spotlight. It is the fisheries management measures that are the cause of so much anger and that UK fishers want to ditch. The irony is that for all its faults in earlier times, the current version of the CFP is working. The decline in many fish stocks, in part caused by politicians ignoring the advice of scientists, is being reversed. Now numbers are slowly recovering as more sustainable catch limits are put in place.   

At the heart of CFP fisheries management is the extremely sensible idea that fishing should be sustainable.  What’s not to like about this?

What is even more ironic is that if we were starting out from scratch, the central parts of a new fisheries policy would be very similar to the CFP. What’s its detractors overlook, or ignore, is that at the heart of CFP fisheries management is the extremely sensible idea that fishing should be sustainable. What’s not to like about this? 

One of the central aims of the CFP is that all commercial fish stocks will achieve Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) by 2020. MSY describes the maximum number of fish that can be taken out of a population and replaced through natural reproduction. Taking more fish than MSY is overfishing which, if unchecked, will eventually lead to the commercial extinction of populations. Any replacement of the CFP which we might put in place would have to include a goal of achieving MSY. To do anything else would be foolish.

The second central pillar of the CFP is the discards ban. The public was rightly shocked to see pictures of dead fish begin thrown back into the sea and this encouraged MEPs to support a ban. As well as responding to public outcry there are good fisheries management reasons for a discards ban as reflected in the CFP. The first is to drive technological change. While fish can be dumped there is no incentive to improve fishing gear so that only one target species is caught. The second is to make sure that all fish caught are counted, increasing the accuracy of stock assessments. 

For all the bluster around the discards ban it is working. It is driving change and recent work is showing that there are only a handful of fisheries that pose significant challenges. And discussions are already beginning about how these can be tackled.

The CFP is just a mechanism for bringing in these important measures. The point that is lost in all the political noise is that any fisheries management scheme must have sustainability at its heart and must encourage technological improvement and accurate stock assessment. If the CFP was to disappear tomorrow, fisheries management would have to aim at achieving MSY and would have to stop discarding.

Handline caught Atlantic mackerel

Handline caught Atlantic mackerel ©Toby Roxburgh/2020VISION

A final bone of contention with fishers and politicians alike is that the CFP stops us having control of our waters, and that delay in leaving puts off the time when we ‘take back control’.  In these discussions control boils down to quotas and access. UK fishers want to be able to catch more fish and want fewer foreign vessels in UK waters – ideally none.

When it comes to quota, it is conveniently forgotten that it is UK Government, not the EU, that decides how much each UK vessel can catch. If the inshore fishing fleet is receiving less than its share of quota it is Westminster that is failing, not Brussels. And if much of UK quota is owned by a few large, and often foreign, corporations then it is UK Government that has failed to act and, indeed, UK fishers who sold their quotas to allow it to happen.

As for access, there has never been a time when UK fishers only fished UK waters and no-one else did. UK fishers went everywhere, and other countries did the same. Today French and Belgian vessels can fish in UK coastal waters due to rights based on historic fishing patterns. The idea that there can be a ‘UK-only’ zone in offshore waters is unrealistic. UK fishers will want to fish in EU waters and vice versa. Compromises will have to be made.

Equally unrealistic is the call for keeping discussions on trade separate from talks on access. France, Spain and Italy are major customers for the shellfish sectors and many UK-flagged pelagic vessels land to EU ports. At the same time, EU vessels want to retain access to UK waters.  We need trade, the EU needs access. It is politically naïve to expect the two to be separated.

As with much to do with Brexit, there is much harking back to a ‘golden age’ before the EU and before the CFP.  The reality is that this ‘golden age’ never existed, that many of the problems are of UK rather than European making and that any sensible fisheries management will have the same central pillars as exist in the CFP.  UK fishers and the British people would be better served if debate around future fisheries management was based on fact, rather than a rose-tinted view of the past.

The Wildlife Trusts believe that the Government’s review of fisheries management provides new opportunities for reforming fisheries and marine conservation management in ways that will benefit both. Our proposals for a new, more joined-up, approach can be found in ‘The Way Back to Living Seas', The Wildlife Trusts’ blueprint for a better future for our seas.

Living Seas

Protecting Wildlife at Sea

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