3 November 2016
Since the early 1980s, the annual level of diminishing whitefish quotas has been decided at the Council of Fisheries Ministers meeting in Brussels in December. The meeting is the culmination of a year’s survey and laboratory work, assessing the likely sustainable harvest of fin and shellfish stocks exploited in common by EU member states. The data are shared with their scientists, scrutinised by several peer reviewing committees whose deliberations are used to formulate Total Allowable Catches for the following year by the EU Commission. These figures are then presented to Producer Organisations, whose membership in Ireland amounts of fewer than 10% of fishing vessels and whose subsequent lobbying to disregard the scientific advice and raise the quotas is supposed to represent the interests of everyone in the catching sector.
The latest article, examines the process of sharing out whitefish quota in Ireland in 2014. Contrasting with the dedication and care of those who undertook the survey and laboratory work, the procedure became less surgical – more crude – as discussion passed from scientific through industrial interests to the administration of the quotas themselves.
Some 33,000 tonnes of whitefish species and Nephrops quota were allocated to Ireland but multiples of those amounts were made available to the industry in monthly tranches. In all, a minimum (there were some “open” quotas and quantities of certain by-catches were unquantifiable) of almost 800,000 tonnes of whitefish and Nephrops were made available throughout 2014, 23 times the total quotas. It is Departmental policy to fully utilise quota and this involved allocating six times the permitted landings of Nephrops and 312 times the quota for sole. In the end, more than half of the individual species quotas were not filled.
The industry in Ireland constantly bemoans “lack of quota” but the real problem is shortage of fish. Unrealistically high quotas encourage overfishing and contribute to the decline in landings which is particularly visible over the past twenty years. However, lack of quota is an acceptable fiction which allows the authorities of claim that Ireland’s fisheries are sustainable while, at the same time, attributing the shortage of exploitable fish to the EU Commission withholding fishing possibilities.
PRELUDE TO WHITEFISH QUOTA NEGOTIATIONS
Whitefish quota species are most abundant at the commencement of a fishing year, declining as time elapses. By the early autumn they have become scarce. In mid-November 2013 a fleet of 15 vessels in Kilmore Quay was ordered back to port by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) because, according to their owners, the O’Flaherty brothers, “Some of our skippers have problems discarding over-quota fish” and were instead landing them.[i] At the same time there were indications of the scarcity of whitefish elsewhere in the Celtic Sea. France had landed only 38% of its megrim and 58% of its monkfish quotas in the same year.
The third week in December in which the Council of Ministers traditionally meet in Brussels to decide Total Allowable Catches and national quota allocations for the following year, was predictably stormy. The Commission proposed reductions of 75% and 23% in the 2013 quotas for haddock and Nephrops (prawns) respectively.[ii] The usual horse-trading got underway; the Minister, encouraged by Producer Organisations, urging the Commission to disregard the scientific advice on the sustainable management of stocks, which had been purchased at great cost to the taxpayer (the Fisheries and Ecosystem Advisory Services division of the Marine Institute which is primarily engaged on stock assessment had a budget of €5 m in 2014). The compromise reduced the recommended cuts in prawn landings to 9%; haddock quota was reduced but only by 33%. On the other hand, hake quota was permitted to increase by half over the previous year and that for one of the megrim stocks by 20% while monkfish quotas in the south west rose by 15%.[iii]
Producer Organisations were not impressed. A representative for the Irish South and West Fish Producer Organisation observed that it would be virtually impossible for Irish vessels to work in their own waters and survival for the Irish whitefish fleet was “insurmountable”. Minister Coveney responded lamely that things might have been worse and, he added, conditions had improved for fishermen in the immediate past and that the actual value of the landings in 2014 would not be very different from those of the year before.[iv]
It is at this point that the public invariably loses interest. The popular interpretation of events has seen the champions of impoverished coastal communities sally out to confront the giant of the European Commission which withholds fish supplies from it, wrest whatever they could and heroically stumble on for another year. A number of environmental non-government organisations focus their efforts on the December negotiations and, invariably, express disappointment at their outcome; once the quotas have been announced, they have little more to say until the same time the following year. This is regrettable because what occurs next is worthy of considerably more scrutiny than it obtains. In this article I want to examine more critically what actually occurred as part of the process of distributing quota to the industry in Ireland in 2014.
DIVVYING UP THE WHITEFISH QUOTAS
Sharing out the national quota among the fleet should be straightforward: if 1,000 tonnes of a species is available then each of 1,000 boats should get a tonne to itself. In fact it is a little more complex: first the industry, through its Producer Organisations, advises how the quota should be distributed throughout the year so there is not an early glut and a later dearth resulting in uneven supplies to the consumer and erratic prices to the industry. Quota is allocated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) which administers the quotas in bite-sized chunks on a monthly or, for some species, trimonthly basis. As the monitored landings accumulate, the remaining national quota is pared away and later allocations are necessarily smaller, hence the problem alluded to in the autumn of 2013 in south east Ireland.
A total of 245 vessels were entitled to harvest whitefish, the numbers in each of the categories identified are set out in Table 1. The annual total of whitefish species/Nephrops made available to each vessel category is set out in Table 2.
The allocations available to two groups of vessels in 2014 – those above and below 55 feet overall length – are set out as monthly tonnages (species not distinguished) in Fig 1, demonstrating their diminishing volume as the season progressed.
WHITEFISH QUOTAS THROUGOUT THE YEAR
Before looking at the process in detail, had I been asked how quotas were distributed annually I would have surmised that the total national tonnages were divided into monthly bite-sized allocations; I would have been very wrong. In January 2014, quota allocations amounted to 62,106 t; the national quotas for the year totalled 33,726 t. In other words, in January alone, almost twice the total annual whitefish/Nephrops quotas were made available to the fleet. That was repeated in successive months until the totals began to decline (Fig 1). Throughout 2014, 790,000 t approximately of whitefish/Nephrops quota was made available to the fleet. I say approximately because open quotas were allocated to certain vessels for sole and the so-called by-catches available to boats with monkfish authorisation are incalculable.
Details of the quotas, landings and allocations in 2014 are summarised in Table 3. Some 23 times the national quota allocations for whitefish and Nephrops were made available to the fleet for a minimum of one month during the year. These ranged between 6 times the national total for Nephrops to 312 times the total for sole. More than half the species quotas were not reached[vi]. The multiple of quota made available has an inverse relationship with the percentage of quota actually landed (Fig 2).
Of particular note was the outcome for haddock which had been a major contention in the run-up to the 2014 negotiations. The initial scientific advice was for a reduction of 75% in haddock quota[vii]; following representations by the Irish Fish Producers Organisation the cut was reduced to 33%[viii]; DAFM made 33 times that amount available but, in the end, only 87% of the quota was landed.
HAS SCIENCE ANYTHING TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE MANAGEMENT OF WHITEFISH QUOTAS?
“Filling all quotas” is DAFM policy and that consists of making enormous amounts of fish available to the industry until the thresholds have been reached. Despite the investment in fisheries science over many years several dubious aphorisms are particularly persuasive. One, quoted by the Federation of Irish Fishermen in 2013, stated that a cut in quota would be “a charter for discards” if implemented[ix]. In fact the opposite is true. The policy implemented in 2014 must have resulted in greater incidental fishing-related mortality than if the quotas had been more realistic.
The declining levels of whitefish landings is symptomatic of the greater problem. Raising the Total Allowable Catches above the scientifically recommended amounts at the behest of Producer Organisations is obviously a contributor. However, the science policy which promotes meaningless objectives like MSY is less than helpful.
A number of questions are prompted by the results outlined above. One, what does the incessant demand for additional whitefish quota by the industry signify? Certainly some species quotas in 2014 were completed but the majority were not. Additional effort targeting the more abundant in an environment of mixed species harvested by unselective gears results in even more discards. The truth is that there is no shortage of quota, rather there is a very real shortage of fish.
It is convenient to avoid this particular issue. Adjusting fishing practices to regain lost biomass is a painful business requiring short and medium term sacrifice. It was briefly considered a strategy in the 1980s and then abandoned. Far more convenient to demonise the European Commission in Brussels for withholding fish from the industry. At the same time, identifying shortage of quota as the culprit for low catches allows the fisheries establishment to maintain that fish stocks are “sustainably harvested” which is a significant marketing advantage.
3 November 2016
[i] Fishing vessels ordered back to port over quotas. By Lorna Siggins, Irish Times, 18 November 2013
[ii] Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney has warned…. By Lorna Siggins and Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 17 December 2013
[iii] Anger within the industry over EU fish deal. By Lorna Siggins, Irish Times, 19 December 2013
[iv] Coveney defends deal on fisheries despite whitefish cuts. By Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 18 December 2013
[vii] Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney has warned…. By Lorna Siggins and Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 17 December 2013
[viii] Anger within the industry over EU fish deal. By Lorna Siggins, Irish Times, 19 December 2013
[ix] Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney has warned…. By Lorna Siggins and Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 17 December 2013