A Question of Balance

A Question of Balance:

Small-scale and large-scale fleets could play complementary roles

given a level playing field.

Brussels, 20 June 2017

Brian O’Riordan


There is self-evidently a place and a need for both small and larger scale fishing fleets, but this requires first of all establishing a level playing field that ensures fair access to resources, to markets, to sector support, and to decision taking processes for all fleet segments.

When Commissioner Vella asked LIFE whether or not all small-scale fishing activities in the Mediterranean and Black Sea were really low impact, he had already answered his own question. Earlier in his speech to the fishery stakeholders in Malta on 29 March 2017, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries had pointed out that 80% of the Mediterranean “fleet belongs to small-scale fishermen (with vessels under 10m long), who fish a quarter of the total catches”. This means that, according to Commissioner Vella, just 20% of the fleet, the larger-scale segment, take 75% of the catch, thus having by far a greater impact on fish stocks and the marine environment than 80% of the fleet with 25% of the catch[1].

Of course, not all small-scale activities are low in impact, and not all larger scale fishing is destructive. Stocks may be more vulnerable during certain seasons when they aggregate to spawn, feed, and develop. Both small and large-scale activities that target these aggregations may have significant impacts on them. High concentrations of small scale gears in inshore waters, for example, despite being worked from very small [<6m] vessels may have a big impact on these aggregations. So too, relatively small vessels kitted out with modern fish finding and navigation technology, gear haulers, and powerful engines, that fish intensively may also have a considerable impact. Small, like large, also requires effective management and regulation, but the same regulatory and management measures are not necessarily appropriate for these two fleet segments.

Small size can be an indicator of sustainability, in as much as small in fishery terms implies using gears low of environmental impact, vessels with a relatively low carbon foot print, with activities rooted in coastal communities, undertaken by small family based enterprises that provide jobs and income in areas with few economic or employment alternatives, and where women play a key role, albeit often unseen and unrewarded economically. It is certainly the case that it is far easier for a vessel pulling a trawl net the size of a football pitch, with an engine power measured in the 1000’s of kilowatts, or a seiner using heavy metal wire rather than the traditional ropes to do far more damage, far more quickly than the average small scale vessel.

In this sense, the Members of the European Platform “Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE)” aspire to having the least possible impact on both the fish stocks and on the fishing grounds through adopting a best practice approach – using the right gear, at the right time, in the right place. Our answer to Mr Vella’s question, is therefore: “No, of course not. Not all small-scale fishing activities are low in impact, but they could be if given a fair chance and adequate support.”

LIFE has always held that both large-scale (lsf) and small-scale (ssf) fishing activities, at all stages of the supply chain from catch to consumption, are needed, and play complimentary roles in providing income, employment, and food supplies, creating wealth, and contributing to the culture and social wellbeing of coastal communities. Stocks further off shore may be more effectively caught by larger vessels able to deal safely with offshore conditions, and with the capacity to store larger catches. Bulk landings from larger scale fleets may be more suitable for large processing facilities supplying mass retail markets. At the same time, there are advantages to reserving inshore areas, for smaller scale fixed gear operators, who have traditionally supplied high quality fresh fish to local and more niche markets. These coastal fishermen and fisheries also underpin numerous vulnerable coastal communities, often with few alternative employment opportunities, not just in terms of food production but also for the added value they bring to the tourist experience, the significant number of shore based jobs they support and the maintenance of maritime related knowledge and skills.

Indeed, it is in everyone’s interest that the intrinsic complementarity between large scale and small-scale, artisanal and industrial fleets, and between traditional and modern activities should be recognized, and synergies identified and capitalized on. This can only be done if a level playing field is established where competition and conflicts do not put one or other sector at a disadvantage, where each fleet segment is provided with a fair and transparent share of access rights, where good practice is rewarded and innovation encouraged.

This also requires a governance system that puts those who fish and are active in the supply chain centre stage, enabling them to engage meaningfully in the decision-making processes that affect both them and the resources they depend on. Such governance systems do exist, and require that authorities and fishers sit together on co-management committees to solve problems and agree courses of action together, with these committees fully empowered by the administration through formal power devolution procedures. It is to be welcomed that the Government of Catalonia is now making such co-management law through a new decree http://international-view.cat/2017/05/23/its-the-governance-stupid/.

By contrast, for over 30 years, fisheries in Europe have been governed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), a policy that has turned a blind eye to small scale fisheries, treating it as a national issue, and making exceptions for smaller vessels to many EU rules. This has proved to be a poisoned chalice for the small-scale sector, which has effectively been often operating under the regulatory radar. It has meant that catches from the sector have not been properly recorded and documented, and this has put smaller vessels at a disadvantage when it comes to quota allocation. It has also meant that small scale fishing organizations have been disempowered from engaging in decision taking processes at EU level, as no support has been provided to establishing structures like small scale producer organizations.

This aspect was recently highlighted by a special report from the European Court of Auditors on EU fisheries controls http://www.eca.europa.eu/en/Pages/DocItem.aspx?did=41459. This highlighted that, as a result of the application of the rules of the Control Regulation, 89% of the EU fleet, 95% of which comprises vessels under 12 metres long, is not monitored by a vessel monitoring system (VMS). This significantly hinders effective fisheries management in some fisheries and for some species. The report also highlighted that a lack of transparency in the way that some producer organizations manage quotas increases the risk that specific interests of certain economic operators are favoured at the expense of others, creating unequal competition between fleet segments.

In many EU member states, small scale activities, traditionally polyvalent using a variety of gears around the year, targeting a seasonally diverse array of species – right gear, right place, right time – are now only permitted to catch a limited range of non-quota species. Thus, for example in the UK the small scale under 10 metre sector, representing 77% of the fleet by number, has access to only 1.5% of the UK quota by tonnage, and must rely mainly on non-quota species like whelk, brown crab and lobster. This increases pressure on these species, and tends to flood markets, often depressing prices.

In Ireland, small-scale fishers from island communities are not allowed to catch the fish in their coastal waters. Meanwhile, supertrawlers that fish around the world are allowed to, catching the species traditionally caught by them and hauling away their gear with impunity. Irish islanders, represented by the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO), are proposing that Ireland adopts a system of “heritage licences”, allocated to smaller scale fixed gear vessels, owned and operated by fishers from island communities. These vessels would operate in waters adjacent to the islands, and would be managed under a locally led co-management regime.

Financial support is another area where larger scale fishing activities have gained huge advantages at the expense of small-scale activities.  Whilst it is often said that subsidies to industrial fishing is subsidizing overfishing, at least in Europe, it could be said that in the case of the small-scale sector, subsidies have been subsidizing underfishing.

In Europe, over the period 2000 to 2006, the large majority of subsidies for vessel construction and modernization went to vessels over 24 metres, whilst vessels under 12 metres received twice as much funding for scrapping as they did for modernisation and construction[2].

A recent study by the University of British Colombia reports that at global level, 84% of subsidies to the fishing sector, valued at 35 billion US$, go to vessels over 24 metres in length. It highlights how fuel subsidies promote fuel-inefficient technology and help large-scale fishers stay in business, even when operating costs exceed total revenue gained from fishing. Subsidies for port development and boat construction, renewal and modernization also give the large-scale fisheries sector significant advantages over their small-scale counterparts, who receive only a small percentage of those subsidies https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-06/uobc-spo053117.php.

So, how can a more level playing field and a more transparent and fairer system for allocating fishing rights and financial support be established?

First and foremost, the small-scale sector must be brought into the regulatory fold. This could be done by establishing a differentiated approach to managing small and large-scale fishing activities, based on spatial management, with exclusive fishing areas designated for small scale, low impact fixed gears, and confining the activities of more heavily impacting mobile gears further out to sea.

The benefits of such an approach are highlighted in a recent report by the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) http://www.scottishcreelfishermensfederation.co.uk/report.htm. The SCFF point out that the combination of Marine Scotland’s “hands off” approach, and de facto creel limits imposed by the trawl sector has resulted in trawlers managing to secure 87.7% of the Scottish Nephrops prawn catch; a level of access to stocks, according to SCFF, not warranted by the trawl sector’s economic or environmental performance, or indeed any coherent performance indicator. Fishing with creels not only delivers more jobs per tonne caught, it is economically more efficient (i.e. profitable) to catch a tonne of Nephrops using creels rather than trawling the sea bed. By reallocating access to Nephrops in favour of creeling, and by establishing creel only areas, Marine Scotland has the opportunity to increase total employment, total household incomes, total profits /economic efficiency and the number of individual fishing businesses in coastal areas. Many of these areas are remote and suffer from a narrow range of economic opportunity.

Secondly, a differentiated approach would involve establishing different access regimes for polyvalent low impact small scale fixed gear operators on the one hand, and larger scale mobile gear operators on the other. The former would involve regulating access using input controls, such as days at sea, spatial and temporary fishery closures, and putting restrictions on the quantity of gear that any vessel could deploy within a given time frame. The latter regime for larger scale operators could involve a mixture of both input (restricting effort, for example, through days at sea) and output (restricting catches, for example, through quotas) controls.

The quid pro quo of this would be that ssf operators would need to engage more proactively with scientists and fishery managers in providing data on fish catches generated by them using new technologies available thanks to the development of mobile applications for smart phones and tablets.

New, simple and powerful, electronic technologies are available that make the whole process of data logging at sea relatively easy to do http://abalobi.info/, using smart phones and tablets. Already such mobile technologies are being used by fishers to improve their marketing arrangements and to engage more effectively as data providers in fisheries management. Such data gathering tools could also be developed as electronic log books.

The current focus on the blue economy, sustainable development goals, and climate change provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the state of play in European fisheries, to highlight some hard facts, and put forward solutions.

LIFE exists to provide a dedicated and specific voice for the previously silent majority of fishers in European waters. LIFE also believes that there is a need for much increased transparency, a fairer and more equitable approach to access to the resource, a differentiation in some form between mobile and passive gears and vitally, much improved co-management systems for fisheries in coastal near-shore waters.

Exploiting the synergies and complementarities between small and large-scale fleets should provide the possibility for putting European fisheries on a fairer and more sustainable footing for the future. It is an opportunity there for the taking and one that all concerned ignore at their peril.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2014-2019/vella/announcements/press-statement-meidterranean-fisheries-conference-malta_en

[2] http://www.smh.com.au//breaking-news-world/eu-subsidies-have-encouraged-overfishing-study-20100331-re68.html

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