Council moves to avoid chokes as discards ban kicks in

Efforts to avoid choke species, particularly those with zero TACs, dominated difficult two-day December council negotiations that brought cuts in some important TACs but increases in others, reports Tim Oliver

With Brexit due on 29 March, 2019, this was the last fisheries council in which the UK will participate as an EU member state.

While some progress was made on choke species, many difficult issues remain to be resolved in the new year and beyond.

The most difficult choke species are five for which the scientific advice was for zero TACs – Celtic Sea cod, Irish Sea whiting, west of Scotland cod and whiting, and Western Approaches plaice.

The approach to these is to set the TAC at a level below current catches, to partially cover unavoidable by-catches, and to make up the gap through international swaps and additional selectivity/avoidance measures.

Member states without quota – notably Spain and the Netherlands – would have first call on the reserved by-catch quota, by offering swaps of other desirable quotas. The arrangement will apply from

1 January, but the UK has laid down markers that the level of TAC and the swapping arrangements require early review.

Chokes are also addressed through enhanced inter-area and inter-species flexibility. There are also measures to provide incentives for fishermen to fish more selectively, and commitments by member states to take appropriate control measures.

Some notable TAC increases include Irish Sea cod (16%) and haddock (17%), but the region’s mainstay prawn fishery suffered a -32% cut. Irish Sea plaice and sole are up 243% and 554% respectively.

North Sea and west of Scotland monkfish are up 25%, and there is a 21% rise in area 7b-k haddock. North Sea saithe is also up 16%.

Northern hake is up 26% overall.

West of Scotland (6a) Nephrops is up 24%, and megrim in area 7 is up by 47%.


There are heavy TAC cuts in several species.

North Sea cod is down -35%, whiting -6% (there was uncertainty over the size of the whiting cuts as Fishing News went to press), and haddock -30%. North Sea sole is down -20%, and -26% in 7d, and west of Scotland haddock is down 31%.

North Sea Nephrops is down -10% in EU waters and -25% in Norwegian waters, as well as -32% in the Irish Sea.

Cuts in pelagic species include -20% for western mackerel and -33% for North Sea herring above 53 degrees north. Herring in the southern North Sea and eastern Channel is down -38%, and Channel sprats are cut by -20%.

EU fisheries commissioner Karmenu Vella said that 59 stocks managed by the EU, or by the EU and Norway together, for which MSY advice was available, will be managed at sustainable levels in 2019.

He said 2019 would be ‘a very challenging year’ as the landing obligation fully kicks in.

“We will need to step up our efforts next year to reach the targets we have all agreed to,” he said.

UK fisheries minister George Eustice said: “These negotiations were the culmination of months of government-led work with the devolved administrations, industry and environmental NGOs, to secure the best possible deal for the whole of the UK fishing industry.

“We welcome quota increases for important species like megrim and hake, and progress towards achieving sustainable fisheries, in what was a particularly challenging year of negotiations for all member states.”

The UK delegation included representatives from the devolved administrations.

DEFRA said: “Benefits will be felt around the country with increases in quota for hake, haddock and megrim. Increased quota for monkfish will provide a boost for the Scottish fleet, while Northern Ireland has benefited from an increased share in Irish Sea cod. Agreements on sea bass will offer welcome support to the inshore fleet in Wales.”

KFO welcomes NW whitefish increases and ‘workable’ LO

The Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation said the outcome of the council was ‘generally positive in the circumstances, with a workable solution adopted to the landing obligation, thus avoiding the potential for early closures of a large number of fisheries’.

But chief executive Seán O’Donoghue said that with Brexit continuing to cause major turbulence in the industry, it again underlined the imperative to have guarantees around fisheries honoured.

He said an overall increase of 30% in whitefish quota for the northwest of Ireland will provide improved fishing opportunities for whitefish fishermen in Donegal. He also welcomed increases in TACs in the Irish and Celtic seas as ‘very significant wins’.

“These were, without doubt, the most challenging negotiations that Irish fisheries have ever faced, since a hard Brexit potentially throws everything we have agreed into disarray,” said the KFO chief.

He said that if the Commission’s proposals for the landing obligation had been implemented, choke species could have triggered the closure of most fisheries in Ireland’s whitefish and pelagic sectors in the early months of 2019. He welcomed the ‘workable’ solution, with the allocation of by-catch quotas for the five stocks where a zero TAC was set.

“The prospect of choke species paralysing the Irish fishing industry was a very credible threat, with knock-on effects for a vast array of sustainable fisheries, hitherto able to function normally, being caught in the slipstream,” he said.

In terms of pelagic quota, he welcomed increases in western horse mackerel and Atlanto-Scandian herring, but called for better scientific advice in respect of mackerel. He said that a 20% reduction in mackerel, agreed by the EU/Norway/Faroe in advance of the council, was based on ‘erroneous scientific advice’.

Seán O’Donoghue said, “ICES advice stated that this fishery had been declining since 2011, which is contrary to the entire fishing industry view. This is yet another major mistake in the mackerel advice – not to mention the mistakes made last year, and again this year, on Atlanto-Scandian herring. I am very concerned that ICES does not have a fit-for-purpose quality assurance system in place. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“There have been far too many mistakes over the past number of years, and it is undermining confidence in the scientific advice. At least, ICES has now agreed to carry out a re-evaluation of the mackerel advice in early 2019.”

He said that the 32% cut in area 7 Nephrops was large, but was partly mitigated by exemption from the landing obligation.

“I would like to recognise the role and commitment of Minister Creed and his officials in working closely with us, taking on board our concerns, and delivering a sustainable and economically viable package of measures for 2019,” concluded Seán O’Donoghue.

NFFO perspective on fisheries council

‘Mixed fortunes’ for South East

NFFO president Tony Delahunty said there were ‘mixed fortunes’ for the South East from the council.

“It is a hard blow to face a further 25% TAC reduction in eastern Channel sole, against the background of deep cuts in previous years. On the other hand, the 10% increase in the TAC for skates and rays in area 7 will be welcome.

“Despite our efforts, it was not possible to secure an increase in the North Sea TAC, despite an abundance of thornback ray in the Thames and the limited number of alternative fishing opportunities. The high-survival exemption for skates and rays means that over-quota catches of ray will be returned to the sea during 2019.

“Although Channel cod is not considered to be a choke risk in 2019, things can change very quickly with a fast-growing, migratory species like cod. Given the UK’s ludicrously low share of the TAC, it will be important to be ready to intervene if signs appear that the fishery will be choked.”

North Sea: cod is ‘acute’ choke risk

Commenting on the North Sea results, Ned Clark, chairman of the NFFO NE committee said that the 33% cut in cod will make cod the limiting species in the mixed fisheries, increasing the choke risk from medium to acute.

Whiting faced a proposed 40% cut, but this was reduced to 6%, through a cut to the TAC and a de minimis deduction.

Major chokes in the flatfish fisheries were averted by removing TAC status from dab and providing a (conditional and temporary) exemption for skates and rays and plaice.

“By making a fetish of managing stocks at MSY, rather than using it as a helpful signpost of progress to high average yields, the environmental NGOs marginalised themselves from most of the debates at council, and contented themselves with sniping from the sidelines,” said Ned Clark.

“There is no question of ignoring the science – it is a question of using the very best available science to inform complex, difficult and multifaceted management decisions.”

He said it was ‘a relief’ that the Farne Deeps Nephrops fishery – the main economic driver for the local fleets – had stabilised after a dip in the biomass, and remedial measures.

South West: progress, but big challenges ahead

Cornish FPO chief Paul Trebilcock emphasised the need for effective and workable outcomes to meet the discards ban in the ultra-mixed fisheries of the South West.

He said the council outcomes contained some important gains for the South West, including significant improvements in quotas like Western hake (+28%) and megrim (+47%), and rollovers for pollack and saithe in area 7.

But he said that the ‘complicated and unsatisfactory outcome’ for Celtic Sea cod presents ‘a potentially massive challenge for South West fishermen in the year ahead’. The UK has already called for a review of the 2019 TAC early in the new year.

A 20% increase in area 7b-k haddock was welcome, but it is still likely to be a ‘significant’ choke risk.

CFPO members ‘will continue to work with scientists on selectivity improvements and enhanced data collection, but this multifaceted problem will not be solved without a realistic level of quota being available for South West fishermen’.

There were mixed outcomes for the important South West flatfish quotas. For skates and rays, a welcome increase of 5% on the 2018 quota was ‘a reflection of stable catches experienced by fishermen’. But the prohibition on landing common skate and restrictions on small-eyed ray landings remain, and ‘continue to be a frustration that, once again, was not addressed’.

Irish Sea: discards ban critical for prawn fishery

Alan McCulla of the Anglo-North FPO said it was ironic that since the Brexit vote, cuts to the Irish Sea’s main whitefish species have stalled and ‘at least to some small extent been reversed, a trend that continued at this week’s negotiations in Brussels’.

Discussion had focused on ‘the critical matter of the discards ban, which for the Irish Sea was focused on whiting, and the potential this has to choke the targeted fishery for prawns’.

A major focus in the Irish Sea in 2019 will be the government’s consultation on future immigration policy, which has just been released. Alan McCulla said: “Without crew, there is no one to man our fishing vessels – the sea of opportunities that beckons post-Brexit could be lost to many coastal communities.”

FFL: ‘Massive kick’ to the industry

“Yet another December council that is a massive kick to the gonads,” was Fishing for Leave’s reaction to the TACs set at the December council.

Aaron Brown of FFL said: “Those saying the council agreement is ‘challenging but acceptable’ are being disingenuous to the industry. The agreement is more than challenging, and certainly not acceptable – especially given the full weight of the discards ban coming in as of 2019.

“The stark fact behind the semantics is that the increases in certain stocks such as hake, megrim and Rockall haddock are more than offset by the cuts in other species.

“This is compounded by the fact that the cuts are in species on which the UK fleet is most dependent, and represent the biggest danger of being near-guaranteed choke species.

“A light bulb has finally come on dimly with the politicians and officials as to the magnitude that the choke species threat represents.”

He said that the industry understood the dangers immediately when catch quotas and CCTV monitoring were introduced ‘by a clique in the industry to suit the biggest cod-catchers – before Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall popped up on telly’.

“The by-catch provision TACs for those species, such as west of Scotland cod and Irish Sea whiting, come nowhere near addressing the magnitude of the problem. Any flexibilities are deckchair shuffling – many, such as inter-species swaps, make a mockery of quotas that are supposed to manage individual species.

“The only way for the industry to survive now is to keep discarding and avoid CCTV enforcement. But with the green NGOs pushing hard to close the tragic logic of a failed quota system by having cameras on every boat, how long will this last?”

He said quotas would never work in the UK’s mixed fisheries, and that the outcome of the council and the forthcoming discards ban demonstrated that the industry must get out of the EU and CFP immediately.

He said that FFL had developed a unique quota/effort control hybrid to solve the problem of mixed fisheries management that would give an accurate picture of the stocks that could never be achieved with quotas alone.

“The EU will use this failed quota system and choke species to deliberately make it impossible for the UK fleet during any Brexit transition period – which could last four years – to bankrupt the UK fleet and then cite international law to claim the ‘surplus’ resources the UK no longer has the fleet capacity to catch.”

He also warned that there is ‘a high probability’ that the Brexit withdrawal date will be extended ‘to give time to engineer another referendum’.

“Either way, there is a high chance that the British fishing industry is not going to get the independence from the EU we so desperately need, and which FFL is fighting unremittingly for, to dodge the existential threat of the discards ban bullet.”

Scots: ‘Best deal under the circumstances’

Marine Scotland and Scottish industry leaders said that the negotiations had been difficult, and the outcome was effectively making the best of a bad job.

They emphasised the priority of addressing the landing obligation problems, and welcomed the measures to mitigate potential choke risk species, including west coast cod and whiting, and ling and hake in the North Sea. They also looked forward to Scotland benefiting from leaving the CFP.

Marine Scotland said the deal met one of Scotland’s main priorities – to see west of Scotland stocks protected from potential overfishing.

Scottish fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing said: “This year’s negotiations in Brussels have been undertaken against an extraordinary political backdrop, adding to the already significant challenge of securing a good deal for Scottish fishing – although it is worth noting that we were not in isolation, with reduced quotas being faced by all member states across the board.”

He was disappointed with some of the outcomes agreed, and said the Scottish government ‘made the best of a bad situation, and is returning with something close to the best possible deal that could realistically be secured’. He added, “We had always suspected that this would be a particularly difficult council, and so it proved to be.”

He had said before the talks that Scotland’s priority was to find a resolution for choke risks associated with low or zero TAC stocks ‘above all other issues’. He was happy that a workable solution had been found for cod and whiting stocks in particular.

“I’m sure that news will be welcomed wholeheartedly by the west of Scotland fishing industry, along with the potential to review the discards ban, should it be deemed necessary to stop any unintended consequences on our fishermen,” he said.

“That outcome was by no means certain though, and serves to demonstrate the valuable work done by Scottish officials in the past weeks and months.

“Of course, there’s a lot more work yet to be done before 1 January to prepare Scotland’s fleet for what may be a very challenging year ahead, but we will be working closely with industry – as ever – to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for Scottish fishermen.

“One of the side-effects of Brexit is that there is no guarantee that Scotland and the UK government will have a vote on what happens for the foreseeable future, so it’s more important than ever that we do everything in our power to make the most of the current deal – as it could be in place for some time.”

The SFF said the outcome of the talks was ‘challenging but acceptable for the fishing fleet’.  Chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: “The talks have been difficult, as they always are, with the additional element this year of politics related to Brexit. For the Scottish industry, the central issue has been the inclusion of measures to limit the risk of ‘chokes’ by swapping between member states.

“The Scottish delegation worked long and hard, along with their UK colleagues, to give the best chance of avoiding fleet shutdown during 2019. In the end, it is clear that our best interests can only be put first when we have left the CFP, and are able to decide who catches what, where and when in UK waters.”

Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, said: “The dynamics of negotiations this year were always going to be complicated, given full introduction of the landing obligation and the fact that this is our last fisheries council as a fully-fledged member state.

“The outcome is less than we hoped for, but as much as was possible under the circumstances. The important outcome is that our fleets should now be able to fully utilise the opportunities available to them in 2019.”

CFP shambles

Shetland Fishermen’s Association chief executive Simon Collins said the outcome highlighted the deficiencies of the CFP.

He said: “Over the years, the CFP has degenerated from a simple failure to a shambles. It is now imposing severe and often highly questionable cuts in key quotas, right at the point when an already challenging discards ban comes into full force.

“Despite the abundance of local fish stocks, Shetland’s fishermen and fishing communities are to be punished by distant bureaucrats who are utterly obsessed with unworkable rules.

“The Scottish fisheries minister and his team have been a strong voice for our industry throughout these talks, but the CFP ensures that the European Commission can mismanage fisheries at will, and other countries can gang up to harvest more of the natural resources around our shores than we can. This has to end.

“Coming only a week after a disgraceful deal, in which the European Commission betrayed earlier assurances and handed Faroe the right to catch a third of its mackerel quota in our waters, this year’s council demonstrates more than ever why the Scottish fishing industry needs to leave the CFP if it is to thrive.

“For when we do get out, and start planning with government for the post-Brexit era and a much larger seafood sector, we urge the first minister to create a stand-alone fisheries brief under the cabinet secretary.”

Bass: some progress, but not enough

Bass is not included in the landing obligation/discards ban. Measures agreed for bass in 2019 are:

  • Demersal trawls and seines: Unavoidable by-catches not exceeding 400kg per two months (trawls) or 210kg per two months (seines) and 1% of the weight of the total catches onboard a vessel in any single day.
  • Hooks and lines: Not exceeding 5.5t per vessel per year.
  • Fixed gill nets: Unavoidable by-catches not exceeding 1.4t per vessel per year.

The NFFO said that some, but not enough, progress was made in allowing fishermen to keep unavoidable catches of bass.

“Increased catch limits and removal of the 1% by-catch constraint will certainly be welcomed by vessels using fixed gill nets. The main problem remains with the Commission’s insistence on the retention of the 1% by-catch limit for vessels using trawl gears. This will ensure that unacceptable amounts of bass will again be discarded next year,” said the NFFO.

Nevertheless, the increase to 400kg per two months, even within the 1% by-catch, is ‘a step in the right direction’. There had been ‘a huge reduction’ in fishing pressure on bass, and the resultant improvements in the biomass were reflected in this year’s scientific advice.

Chairman Andrew Pascoe said: “I cannot believe that anyone exposed to witnessing the waste of bass caught as an unavoidable by-catch, being discarded week after week, would allow this waste to continue.”

President Tony Delahunty said the relaxations in restrictions will be welcome, although ‘they fall far short of the balanced approach that should be in place at this stage in the recovery of the stock’. The council could and should have done more to reduce unavoidable bass by-catch discards.

Cornish FPO chief Paul Trebilcock said the agreement did not reflect ‘the strong and credible arguments put forward by the NFFO to alleviate the pointless discarding of dead bass in the ultra-mixed trawl fisheries in the South West’, and that pointless discarding would continue.

“This was a big disappointment, but discussions have already begun with DEFRA on how to address this going forward, both in terms of revisiting this during 2019 and, of course, in the post-Brexit era.”


Subscribe to Fishing News magazine today; never miss an issue and save 55%!