The MMO has rejected 261 applications for authorisations to fish bass under the new 2017 regulations, reports Tim Oliver.

It received 661 applications, of which 377 had been approved and 261 rejected as of 8 May, while 23 were still under consideration.

The high number of rejections has angered many fishermen and raised questions about the criteria used to make decisions.

There is also great concern over the fact that track records are still attached to boats, rather than licences as has always been the case in the past.

NUTFA has written to MMO chief executive John Tuckett asking for clarification on issues surrounding track records and how decisions are made on approving or rejecting bass authorisation applications.

Jerry Percy had an exchange of correspondence with John Tuckett on bass in March. Writing on behalf of NUTFA, he said the MMO had failed to keep promises it made to fishermen at that time (Fishing News, March 16: ‘Brussels queries UK bass track record rules’ and ‘MMO: We’ve listened to concerns’).

The MMO said then that it had ‘listened’ to the concerns of fishermen who had replaced vessels since the 2016 reference period, and applied the regulation ‘pragmatically’.

In a letter to Jerry Percy, John Tuckett said it was ‘committed to acting on feedback from industry’ and wanted to implement the rules with ‘the least possible impact to industry, while staying true to the spirit of the regulation’.

He also emphasised that while the MMO did not want to disadvantage fishermen who had assumed they would be able to continue to fish as before when changing vessels, ‘there is a requirement for the fleet targeting bass to be ring-fenced, so no increase in bass fishing pressure occurs’.

But Jerry Percy points out that the Commission had made it clear that the aim of the bass legislation was to prevent fishing pressure on bass increasing beyond current levels, and that they considered that ‘that any fishing history could be linked to the licence rather than the vessel’.

He told John Tuckett that given recent feedback from fishermen on bass authorisations and their earlier correspondence: “I am struggling to see how you have kept your promises in any meaningful way.”

Entitlements with licence

He had, in his earlier letter, given an example of a proven bass fisherman who had sold his boat but kept his licence. He said that historically, and in the understanding of ‘anyone and everyone’ in the industry, the ‘entitlement’ always remained with the licence rather than the hull of the vessel.

“It therefore comes as not only a surprise, but also a massive disappointment that I am now receiving calls from appellants who have been turned down despite fulfilling the criteria,” he tells John Tuckett in his letter, seen by Fishing News.

He also says it is ‘dictatorial’ of the MMO to tell fishermen whose applications have been rejected that they will enter into no further correspondence on the matter.

The rod-and-line bass fisherman who intended to transfer his licence to a new boat had his application rejected without any detailed explanation as to why, and ‘a blunt refusal to enter into any further discussion’.

“With the current issues with access to quota for the 10m-and-under sector, this is likely to lead to him going out of business, losing his life savings with the resultant knock-on effects to him, his family, crew and community,” Jerry Percy tells John Tuckett.

He points out that the Commission – which introduced the new bass regulations – has said his licence is viable. And even though he has had to purchase extra kilowatts to cover an increase in power of his new boat ‘his contribution to the fishery cannot ‘increase the fishing pressure beyond current levels’ as he – and all other rod-and-line bass fishermen – are limited by the annual limit set by the Commission’.

Jerry Percy writes: “We are talking about the difference between economic survival and bankruptcy for a fisherman who fishes within the rules, who has done absolutely nothing for which he should be penalised in the way you have decided, and is fishing with a small vessel, using probably the most sustainable method of fishing possible, while at the same time being hemmed in to the inshore grounds by the actions of some of the biggest trawlers in the world fishing just offshore from him, interspersed by massive fly-shooters who have the capacity to take more fish in a day than he can in a year – and with infinitely more discards.”

Private sales

He says there is another argument relating to the refusal of authorisations to fishermen who have sold bass privately and within the law because they have no proof of capture.

“In a nutshell, the MMO implemented legislation (the Registration of Buyers and Sellers 2005) that says that fishermen have no requirement to record or report their landings within a certain weight, and then they are penalised for not recording or reporting their landings within a certain weight,” Jerry Percy tells John Tuckett.

Fishermen ‘have adhered to every regulation there is in fishing terms’, he says. “It therefore seems entirely unnecessary, and frankly vindictive, to suddenly and without warning turn round and put them out of business through no fault of their own and for no good reason, legal or otherwise.

“I would, therefore, implore you to reconsider the overall approach of your organisation with regard to the imposition of this legislation in general, and especially for those who do in fact meet the criteria according to the very body that produced the legislation in the first place.”

Applications assessment ‘open and transparent’

With regard to the criteria used to make decisions on how bass authorisations were granted or refused, ‘in the interests of openness and transparency’, the MMO gave FN the guidance document provided internally to MMO staff considering representations.

The document takes the MMO staff through a number of steps, starting with the reasons for making the representation, namely: incorrect gear on permit; new vessel/refit; ill health, no track record, other reason.
Staff are told to review documents to ensure ‘solid evidence’ is available. ‘Although we will have some discretion when considering the evidence provided, we will have to justify our decisions and take an impartial, consistent, evidence-based decision to each representation’ staff are told.

Some eligible documents are: incorrect gear on permit (coastal office may be able to confirm); new vessel or refit – receipts, orders, bank statements; ill health – doctor’s letters, appointment cards/letters, proof of carers’ allowance, death certificate, undertaker’s receipt; no track record – check with IFCA; other.
Comments from coastal MMO staff are considered.

Applications and evidence are discussed by a panel. ‘A representation should only be upheld where significant evidence convinces the majority of the panel that it demonstrates, beyond reasonable doubt, bass landing during 1 July 2015 to 30 September 2016, or proof that fishing was not undertaken due to exceptional circumstances. Both solid evidence and independent coastal verification must be present to uphold a representation.

‘In very exceptional circumstances it may be necessary to contact the applicant and ask for further evidence.’

Where an appeal requests to swap eligibility from an old vessel to a new vessel, a spreadsheet is consulted to check the eligibility of the old vessel had. ‘If you feel it is acceptable, award the same level of eligibility to the new (replacement) vessel’ staff are instructed. Staff add their comments, the decision made and the reason for their decision.

MMO: ‘Licence track records would let bass fleet grow’

The MMO said it would reply privately to Jerry Percy’s email, but responded to questions Fishing News asked on the bass authorisation process and track records.

“Bass track records are being attached to vessels rather than licences because the nature of the UK fishing vessel licensing system, the wording of the EU regulation, and the overall objective to protect bass stocks has led us to take that approach,” an MMO spokesman told Fishing News.

“It is intrinsic in the UK licensing system that attaching track record to a vessel licence would permit the track record, and therefore the catch limit, to be transferred between vessels. However, article 9(3) of the 2017 TAC regulation (EU 2017/127) reads ‘the catch limits set in paragraph 2 shall not be transferable between vessels’. In addition, we consider that attaching the track record to licences could allow for the enlargement of the bass catching fleet, which runs counter to the stock protection objective we are seeking to achieve.”

The spokesman said the MMO had always recognised the challenges presented by vessel size and associated reporting requirements in establishing bass track record.

“This is why we created a representation process that gave fishers every opportunity to provide evidence they had of bass track record over and above MMO records.

“We were also very clear from the outset on the types of evidence that would be considered and how to submit a representation. In any representation process, some of the evidence that has been submitted will not be considered adequate, but the onus has always been on the fisher to provide the best possible evidence they have to support their representation within the required timescales.

“We have endeavoured to conclude this process as soon as possible in order to provide certainty to industry and avoid unnecessary hold-ups in allowing eligible owners to start fishing.”

The spokesman said the bass authorisation process had been ‘a very resource intensive exercise’ and to provide some certainty to the UK fleet there has to be ‘some element of finality to the process’.

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