The fight for the future of fish

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The fishing industry “is engaged in a battle in parliament”. It wants to prevent the UK Fisheries Bill from including a commitment that all fish stocks must reach maximum sustainable yield by 2020. Some environmental groups are pushing for this.

This battle may come to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government began a “nationwide discussion with stakeholders” when it published the “Future of fisheries management in Scotland”. It doesn’t include a commitment to reach maximum sustainable yield (MSY). This blog examines the arguments.

What is maximum sustainable yield?

Fishing at MSY means –

  • catching the maximum proportion of a fish stock, that can safely be removed (or fished) from the stock

while at the same time

  • maintaining its capacity to allow maximum sustainable fishing in the long term.

A fish stock is a sub-population of a species of fish, in a particular geographic area.

The UK Government’s 25-year environment plan gives an example of the impact of adopting MSY policy –

“Hake stocks in the North-East Atlantic … illustrate the potential effect of MSY on stock sizes. Between 1985 and 2004, these stocks were in continual decline owing to overfishing. At the lowest point in 2003, 2,500 tonnes were landed in the UK, at a value of £6m at current prices. From 2006, the EU moved towards setting Total Allowable Catches (the amounts fishermen are allowed to catch) in line with MSY. As a result, stocks are now around five times larger, allowing the UK to land 14,000 tonnes of Hake valued at £35m.”

Where is MSY used?

  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea calls for a MSY approach to managing fisheries.
  • The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy includes a legislative target to fish at MSY by 2020 for all stocks.
  • The UK Fisheries Bill does not include an MSY target.
  • The Scottish Government “is not minded to establish targets for achieving MSY in any stocks at this stage but would welcome views on how best to work towards achieving MSY.”

 Arguments for MSY

 Why are environmental organisations pressing for a rigid MSY target in the UK Bill?

  • Greener UK argues that omitting MSY “represents a regression of environmental standards”.
  • They also say that a commitment to MSY is vital to protect against short-term political pressure to set high catch limits, leading to overfishing and damage to ocean health.
  • The New Economics Foundation argue that if EU waters are properly managed, in line with scientific advice, there would be:
    • food for an additional 89 million EU citizens
    • an extra €1.6 billion in annual revenue
    • over 20,000 new jobs across the continent.
  • Some empirical studies argue that the current MSY approach has succeeded in leading European fish stocks towards recovery.
  • Epitath for the Concept of MSY” (1977) said the concept “provides a valuable rough index of production potential… and is probably acceptable”. Academics agree saying the traditional single stock MSY values for European stocks may be about right to achieve sustainable fishing.
  • Unsustainable exploitation of fish stocks in the short-term may have long-term impacts on fishing businesses, related businesses like fish processing, coastal communities and the wider environment.

 Arguments against MSY

 The Scottish Government has said it will “work towards achieving MSY for all our stocks” but has not committed to achieving it because of the challenges within a mixed fishery:

  • Mixed fisheries are where several stocks are caught simultaneously by the same fleet. It is argued that MSY is a single-stock approach – calculated individually for a stock based on its own status only, regardless of the status of other stocks. This fails to consider interactions between species.
  • National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) highlight the challenge of a MSY rigid approach in mixed fisheries, in conjunction with the discard ban (also known as ‘the landing obligation’). The discard ban requires all quota species to be landed and counted against quota. In mixed fisheries, one fish species may be unavoidably caught when seeking to catch another. If advice for one species, based on MSY, is for zero catch, it would potentially mean closing the whole fishery, for fear of unintentionally catching this species (“bycatch”) while targeting other fish.
  • Fisheries managers face multiple competing objectives: ensuring sustainable fish stocks; eliminating discards; meeting environmental objectives; maintaining fishing businesses; safeguarding communities; contributing to wider policy objectives. The NFFO argue that a legislative MSY target would tie managers’ hands in dealing with such trade-offs.

 West of Scotland case study

The West of Scotland fisheries contributed 35% of the total value of all commercial species caught in Scotland, totalling £182.5 million, in 2014.  It is home to four valuable fisheries –

  • an inshore nephrops (Norway lobster) fishery
  • a mixed fishery targeting cod, haddock and whiting
  • a fishery for monkfish, hake and saithe
  • a fishery targeting mainly mackerel and herring.

This area is facing several management issues –

  1. Cod and whiting stocks are depleted. Scientific advice has been for zero catch for both stocks for many years
  2. The bycatch of juvenile whiting by the nephrops fishery is thought to jeopardise whiting stocks
  3. Seal predation seems to have offset a reduction in fishing for cod and is likely to hamper cod stock recovery.

The NFFO argue that if a MSY approach had been applied for quotas set for 2019, the West of Scotland cod and whiting fisheries would have been immediately closed. The New Economics Foundation give details of the scientific advice and EU council agreed Total Allowable Catch, as set out below.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Fish_West coast catch-01

But, remember, the nephrops fishery has a bycatch of whiting. Adopting a strict MSY approach together with the discard ban could lead to closure of the inshore nephrops fishery in the West of Scotland (comprising in 2017 of 118 vessels, 531 Full-Time Equivalent employees and contributed over £13 million to the economy in terms of Gross Value Added).

Are multi annual plans the answer?

Multi annual plans are being agreed by the EU to deal with this mixed fisheries management issue. The EU states that while fully respecting the 2020 objective of MSY, multi-annual plans for fish stocks will allow flexibility in setting the fishing opportunities, where such a flexibility is needed in order to manage for example mixed fisheries.

Wendy Kenyon, Senior Researcher, Rural affairs.