Choking on the Landing Obligation

Choking on the Landing Obligation:

mixed messages, tough questions and dissenting views in Brussels


Brussels, 31st of May 2018

Brian O”Riordan

The Landing Obligation (LO) is one of the most far reaching and controversial measures to be introduced into the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) of 2013. Designed to address both ethical (food waste) and conservation (selectivity/ overfishing) issues, it arrived like a bolt out of the blue following a highly charged campaign directed both at the public at large and at European decision takers and led by TV personalities. It was not at all anticipated in the 2009 Green Paper, and little time was allocated to working out how such a measure could be implemented in practice. DG Mare’s preferred approach to implementation has been to gradually phase in the LO over a 4-year period (2015 to 2019), addressing issues and solving problems as they arise, rather than trying to anticipate and to solve problems in advance.

Three and half years into implementation, and with just 7 months to go before its full entry into force, it is to be hoped that by now most of the wrinkles on the LO have been ironed out.

This was the impression given by Mr Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, in a speech to the Fisheries Committee of European Parliament on May 15. He highlighted that: “The rules are clear: as of 1 January 2019, the landing obligation will apply to all catches of species subject to catch limits and, in the Mediterranean, subject to minimum sizes. These are the rules of the CFP, agreed by all, and well-known to everybody for more than four years now. Rules cannot be changed half-time through a match…. It would undermine the reformed CFP. And it would damage our credibility.”

However, such clarity of vision and purpose were lacking from discussions in the European Parliament on the previous day during a workshop on the “Landing Obligation and Choke Species in Multispecies and Mixed Fisheries”. Following the presentation and discussions of 3 case studies from the North-western Waters, the North Sea, and South-western waters, Mr Alain Cadec, Chair of the Fisheries Committee summed up by stating that: The diagnosis is very clear: uncertainty, difficulty, complexity… I don’t regret voting against the Landing Obligation”.

Not one of the 9 MEPs who spoke during the discussion defended the Landing Obligation (LO). One highlighted that no solutions had been offered by the scientists, and that the LO was not implementable on January 1 2019. Another talked about confusion and problems, and called for a longer transition period and more flexibility. Yet another stated the LO was not compatible with a Total Allowable Catch [TAC] / quota system and was difficult to square with mixed fisheries. There was even a call for a Plan B.

The DG Mare representative agreed that there was insecurity and chaos but opined that the LO “tool box” (quota swaps/ flexibility, de minimis provisions, TAC increases, exemptions, etc) is not being used sufficiently. The representative also observed that scientists are unable to give a full picture of the choke problem; “chokes are not choking because the LO is not yet fully implemented”. Given that the LO is being implemented progressively, more time and patience are needed to see how things evolve, and a need to look at the LO “differently”, she concluded.

The North Sea case highlighted the complexity of defining specific fisheries, categorized as they are by a large variety of metiers, seasons, species etc. The presenter, a French scientist, highlighted that fishing mortality in the North Sea is rising again, and that past gains may be lost. She also noted that choke issues will only become a problem if the LO is strictly implemented. Currently choke problems have not been observed or reported to the STECF she observed.

The Southwestern waters case highlighted that the combination of FMSY and LO will create serious problems and will close fisheries. Choke is a dynamic issue, especially given climate change, it was observed. Choke impact would change over time – a complicated situation that is likely to remain complicated, it was concluded.

Various questions were raised by the MEPs, including one from a Galician MEP on the impact of the LO on small-scale fisheries given the inequality of quota distribution. In Galicia, Europe’s most important fishing and most fishery dependent region, 90% of the 4,500 strong fishing vessel fleet is classed as “artes menores”, comprising vessels with an average length of 8.8 metres using passive gears. Most of these vessels operate in mixed fisheries, where both quota and non-quota species are found.

However, as in other European Member States, the small-scale passive gear fleet has little access to quota as the fleet lacks the necessary catch history to qualify for such. Quota management was introduced as a measure for larger scale fleets and is now being imposed on small-scale fleets through the LO, despite most of the quota being allocated to the larger scale fleet. This makes quota management, and thus the LO, unfairly discriminatory against smaller vessels.

There was also a question asked on behalf of the Scottish demersal trawler operators, for whom one of the main target species is cod, and who will be heavily impacted by chokes. They asked which “pillar” of the CFP should be sacrificed – the fishing levels set at MSY, the implementation of the LO, or the fishermen.

The North Sea case presenter observed that scrapping the LO will not solve anything, that the discard problem will not resolve itself on its own. The LO had been a useful tool for raising awareness about the problem of discards she felt, but now it was time to look at two different but linked objectives:

a) the desire to reduce discards, and

b) the desire to land all catches.

The latter is often seen as the worst option, but also uncontrolled discarding means uncontrolled fishing effort. She felt that “accurately documenting discards at sea is of higher priority to achieving sustainability than the obligation to land ALL fish caught”. As regards small-scale fisheries (SSF), she felt that a lot of research had been done, and that the issue of SSF discards could be encapsulated by the maxim that, like children, small boats = small problems, big boats = big problems. Such a view is not reflected in the different realities that the different fleets have to deal with, especially the restricted location and seasonal nature of small-scale fishing operations compared to the highly mobile nature, wider range and year-round activity of larger scale operations. Whether large or small in scale, LIFE considers that for all fleet segments the treat of imminent bankruptcy is a big problem irrespective of the size of the vessel.

Such a view was expressed by the Spanish scientist presenting the Southwestern Waters case. He felt that as SSF and LSF are quite different, a different approach is needed for each fleet segment.

The North western waters presenter, an Irish scientist, responded to the Scottish question by saying that if the fisheries sector did not fish in a sustainable way, it was not a matter of giving up on fishermen, but rather fishermen would lose their markets due to consumer pressures. That was the choice he felt; either comply with the LO or lose your markets. On SSF, allocation was a national issue he felt, and it was for states to decide how they allocated quota and treated SSF.

In the view of the Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) the LO will have a disproportionate impact on small-scale polyvalent passive gear fishing operations (vessels under 12 metres in length using non-towed gears). In the main, these operations are highly selective, with very low rates of discarding compared to trawling and other towed gears. Just because there is less discarding in the SSF doesn’t mean that they are impacted less by the LO. The LO has surely been designed with the large scale mobile gear sector in mind, not the low impact passive gear sector. This is reflected in the fact that in the last few decades, 3924 scientific papers have been published related to the discard issues, 3760 have focused on large scale operations and only 164 have considered the implications for SSF.

The lack of access of small-scale fishing operators to the quota necessary to remain viable when the LO is fully implemented in 2019 makes them highly vulnerable to “choking” and being forced either to tie up and go bankrupt, or to break the law and face the consequences. For SSF, LIFE fears that the zero-discard policy could well become a zero-fishing, zero-income policy for the SSF.

LIFE therefore advocates a two-pronged approach to the LO for SSF. First and foremost, a requisite and fair quota allocation needs to be provided to enable SSF to plan and manage their operations. Such an allocation should involve some pooling of the quota which can be drawn on as needed to deal with the choke problem as it arises. Secondly, for the inshore segment of the SSF fleet, a move towards effort management could provide a fairer and more effective way to deal both with the problem of access and that of discarding.

Further information:

Vella’s speech to the Parliament the following day

DGMare information:

Pêche Committee Workshop on the Landing Obligation and Choke Species:

Small-scale fisheries and the zero-discard target. European Parliament DG for Internal Policies. 2015

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