Challenges ahead for the new Fisheries Minister

Posted by Barrie Deas, Chief Executive, NFFO on 12 November 2013

All the signs are that George Eustice will be a competent and hardworking fisheries minister. Time will tell if he will be an outstanding one.

At the recent stakeholder meeting with UK ministers in Edinburgh, he displayed an impressive grasp of the key issues and much of the detail, despite only being in his post a matter of weeks. This bodes well for the autumn negotiations, culminating in the December Council. Again, time will tell.

If it had crossed Mr Eustice's mind that his predecessor, Richard Benyon, having completed CFP reform, may have got all the tricky fisheries issues out of the way, and that he could just slip into cruise control as the new minister, he has probably been put straight on that notion by now.

Here are some of the issues demanding the attention of the new minister:

Autumn Negotiations

Given the date of his appointment, Mr Eustice will have little option but to focus immediately on the outcomes of the TACs and Quotas Regulation in December. The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen are directly linked to these decisions and even if the process has the appearance of a late night circus, it is nonetheless vitally important. TAC decisions are always a trade off between what it is safe to harvest now and avoiding jeopardising the future. But given that most ICES advice is provided on a single-stock basis, ministers have a particular responsibility to balance mixed fishery issues and discard reduction with continued progress towards high yield fisheries.

Even before the December Council begins, the minster will be involved (directly or indirectly) in the negotiations to resolve the mackerel dispute with Iceland and also the outcome of the EU Norway negotiations, vital to many different UK fisheries.

He will also have to prepare for the annual fisheries debate in Parliament, which provides MPs with an opportunity to raise a range of fisheries issues.

CFP Reform

Richard Benyon was in charge of the UK's part in negotiating the reform of the CFP but in fact it is the implementation of the measures agreed that presents the real challenge and it looks very likely that this will fall at least partially on George Eustice's watch. Few within the industry can have much doubt that the impending landings obligation (aka discard ban) has the potential to cause mayhem unless handled very carefully.

Equally, the other main pillar of the CFP reform, regionalisation, will generate political issues that will find their way to the new minister's desk. How cooperation between member states at regional-seas level and close cooperation with the RACs in the formulation of fisheries policy will work in practice are open questions at present. And the clock is ticking on the deadlines set by the European institutions.

Marine Protected Areas

Richard Benyon took some flak from some of the more vocal NGOs for insisting on a rational, evidence-based approach to establishing a network of marine protected areas in UK waters. He was right of course, and it is important that his successor also resists the siren call to establish marine conservation zones as a tick-box exercise, without knowing with any degree of precision what it is they are protecting, or what the consequences of displacing fishing activity would be.

Fisheries Science Partnerships

Relations between fishermen and fisheries scientists have come a long way and the Fisheries Science Partnership (FSP) established in 2003 by Defra, Cefas and the NFFO has played a central part in that transformation, setting a model widely copied in Europe. In this era of budget cuts it is vitally important sight is not lost of the role fisheries science partnership projects can play in bringing scientific perspectives and the fishing industry's experience closer together. Ultimately, spending decisions within the department lie with the relevant minister and the priorities they establish. It would be a great mistake to underestimate the achievements of the FSP and its potential to fill gaps in the science in the future.

Under-10metre Fisheries

For a while, exaggeration, over-generalisation and emotional rhetoric dominated the debate on the future of the small-scale inshore fisheries. Thankfully, the focus has now stabilised and moved to identifying and dealing with the actual quota pinch points for the under-10m fleet. These tend to be regionally specific and limited to a few stocks. This has allowed producer organisations to help out without fearing unduly for their members' own allocations. Access to a great deal of quota can be obtained through judicious quota management, swaps, gifts and transfers and the POs have become very skilled in this arena. Providing access to this type of professional quota management is key to getting quota where and when it is needed in the under-10m fleet.

Richard Benyon was very complimentary about the NFFO's role in encouraging this type of industry cooperation and we certainly hope his successor will continue to support the extension and continuation of this important initiative.

Barrie Deas, Chief Executive, NFFO

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