How are fishing quotas set? Stage 3: The EU December Council

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This blog is the third in a series of posts setting out the process for determining quotas for fish stocks. The main stages are set out in the diagram below. This blog explains how the EU decided the total allowable catch (TAC) for fish stocks in EU member states’ waters at the December 2018 Agriculture and Fisheries Council.


What happened at the December Council?

The annual December Agriculture and Fisheries Council brings together ministers from each EU member state to discuss and adopt legislation relating to food production, rural development and fisheries management. During the 2018 Council, the UK was represented by Lord John Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity and George Eustice MP, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (via telephone). The Scottish Government’s fisheries minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, also participated as a member of the UK delegation.

Discussions on fisheries management include fixing TACs for each fish stock, allocating fishing opportunities for each member state and other management measures. Only quota for stocks exclusively fished by EU member states are included in the December Council. TACs for stocks shared with countries outside the EU are set according to limits agreed in coastal state negotiations.

Challenges for the 2019 December Council

Reaching agreement at the December Council is often challenging. Ministers face the difficult task of getting a good deal for their fishing fleets while trying to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks. The 2018 meeting was no exception. Ahead of the negotiations, an article in Fishing News outlined the key challenges in this year’s talks:

  • Full implementation of the landing obligation from 1 January 2019.
  • Meeting the Common Fisheries Policy objective of setting all TACs at maximum sustainable yield by 2020.
  • Avoiding serious choke risks.
  • Meeting the EU objective of managing fisheries in a way that is consistent with long-term sustainability and generating social, economic and employment benefits.
  • Basing TAC decisions on the most recent scientific advice, including advice for zero catch in specific fisheries.

What is the landing obligation?

The 2014 reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) aims to remove discarding through the landing obligation (also known as the “discards ban”). Discarding is the practice of returning unwanted catches to the sea, either dead or alive, because they are the wrong size, the fisherman has no quota, or due to the fisheries catch composition rules. Under the landing obligation all catches must be kept on board, landed and counted against the quotas.

From 2015 to 2019, the landing obligation has been phased in across fisheries and species. The landing obligation was rolled out across all fisheries on 1 January 2019. Ahead of its full implementation, there has been concern over potential ‘choke species’. This term is used to describe a species with a low quota which, if reached, can cause a vessel to stop fishing even if it still has quota for other species.

During a debate in the Scottish Parliament ahead of the December Council, Mr Ewing said:

“Significant cuts and low or zero-level quotas clearly present very difficult choke risks in 2019, the first year in which the landing obligation will apply to all quota stocks. We continue to play an active role in the EU’s regional groups to drive forward the development of innovative solutions to choke risks.

It is essential that, at next week’s December council, all member states embrace the spirit of finding collective solutions to the remaining choke risks. We must prevent a situation in which our fleet is tied up when there is still quota available to be fished, and we are working tirelessly to address the challenges. I assure the chamber that the resolution of such choke risks will be my top priority at next week’s council in Brussels.”

What was agreed at the December Council?

As mentioned above, one of the key challenges for the 2018 Council was ensuring TACs are set in line with the CFP objective of setting all TACs at maximum sustainable yield by 2020. Scientific advice for reductions in quota for some key species such as mackerel, cod and herring created a challenging situation for negotiations at the Council.

As mentioned in the previous blog in this series, scientific advice is often not followed. A report by the New Economics Foundation shows that between 2001 and 2017, on average, seven out of every 10 TACs were set above scientific advice. Over the same period, the percentage by which TACs were set above scientific advice has declined (from 42% to 7%). However, the number of TACs set above advice has seen an overall increase (from 62 to 73).

The outcome of the Council negotiations was that reductions in quota from the previous year were made for some stocks. However, these were not all in line with scientific advice. For example, mackerel was set at minus 20% (rather than minus 61%), North Sea cod at minus 33% (rather than minus 47%) and North Sea Herring at minus 36% (rather than minus 52%).

Measures were also agreed to mitigate choke risks with cod and whiting on the west coast and ling and hake in the North Sea. These measures included a new quota exchange mechanism created for member states without a quota for by-catches (species caught unintentionally) in five fisheries.

In a letter to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee following the Council, Mr Ewing wrote:

“The outcomes secured respect the scientific advice and strike the best balance between opportunities for the fleet and ensuring sustainable fishing levels. They will allow fishing to continue for the full year and deliver a sustainable and profitable future for Scottish fishermen.

As well as mitigating a number of quota reductions and finding workable solutions to the remaining choke risks, I also secured an important concession at Council for there to be a review of the operability of the landing obligation in 2019 and for this to be completed if it is required before unintended consequences unfairly and unjustly impact on our fishermen as the fishing year proceeds.”

How are TACs shared among EU Member States?

TACs are shared between EU countries in the form of national quotas. For each stock a different allocation percentage per EU country is applied. This fixed percentage is known as the relative stability key. The percentage share for each Member State was agreed by Member States when quotas were first introduced for the fish stocks concerned, and the share-out between Member States stays the same each year. EU countries can exchange quotas with other EU countries.

The UK’s fisheries administrations are then responsible for allocating its share of the national quota for various stocks to its fleet. Marine Scotland is responsible for distributing Scotland’s share of the UK’s quota to its fleet. This process is shown in the diagram below.

SPICe_2018_Inshore Fisheries_Quotas flow chart-01


The process of distributing the UK’s quota will be explained further in the final blog in this series.

Damon Davies, Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs