The future of fisheries management in Scotland: 2. sustainable fisheries

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This blog is part of a series of blogs examining key elements of the Scottish Government’s Future Fisheries Management Policy Intent Paper, which was published on 1 October 2020. The paper sets out the government’s response to stakeholder views on the Future of fisheries management in Scotland national discussion paper. This blog focusses on environmental aspects of the paper.

Sustainable fisheries management

Scotland’s marine environment faces many pressures, such as:

Scotland is also failing to meet international targets on marine biodiversity and the UK as a whole is failing in most indicators for achieving ‘good environmental status’ in UK seas.

The Future Fisheries Management Policy Intent Paper does not address these issues directly, but sets out a number of proposals related to sustainable fisheries management.

Prioritising marine ecosystems?

The policy intent paper highlights a clear steer from stakeholders around the issue of environmental sustainability, the need to respect biodiversity and take an ecosystem-based approach to management. It states:

“we will set out our commitment to taking an ecosystem-based approach to management and how this will work in practice, in particular making a clearer link between fisheries and wider marine planning decisions. This will complement our broader approach to developing an action plan for the Blue Economy.”

Taking an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management may require difficult decisions to be made about the use and management of more damaging mobile methods of fishing (bottom-trawling and dredging). For example, a 2017 study estimated that 14% of marine animal biomass was removed by beam trawls, 20% for towed scallop dredges and 41% for hydraulic dredges per pass. The study also found recovery time took up to 6.4 years post-trawling.

Bottom trawling currently affects a significant area of the seabed in Scottish waters. The image below shows bottom trawl fishing intensity in the North Sea as average number of times per year a unit area was fished between 2010-2012.

Map of bottom trawl fishing intensity in the North Sea. The map shows high levels of intensity of trawling activity focussed around the North Sea northeast of Aberdeen and around Shetland and the coast of Norway and Denmark. High levels of intensity also occur of the west coast of Scotland and particularly in the Firth of Clyde.
Source: European Environment Agency

The most hotly debated proposal for protecting inshore marine habitats is the re-introduction of a ban on bottom trawling within three nautical miles of the coast. This proposal is supported by some, but not all static gear fishers and environmental organisations but opposed by mobile sectors of the Scottish fishing fleet.

The policy intent paper does not provide any commitment to introduce spatial restrictions on the use of mobile fishing gear but indicates consideration of seasonal restrictions:

“Building on the work being undertaken as part of inshore pilots on local management, effort controls, and separation of mobile and static gear, we will use learning from these pilots to develop a coherent joined up approach. We will also begin to explore the potential to protect nursery areas and areas where there are juvenile fish, potentially through seasonal activities.”

Seasonal closures of fisheries are already imposed in some areas in Scotland’s inshore waters. In the Clyde, seasonal closures for cod were found to be ineffective due to an already severely depleted population and because continued use of some types of fishing gear such as Nephrops (langoustine) trawls with the possibility of unintended bycatch.

Sustainable catch limits

Maximum Sustainable Yield is the maximum catch that can theoretically be harvested sustainably as determined by scientific assessment. The theory is that the rate that fish are caught is being replenished at the same rate, so the stock can be fished indefinitely without depleting the stock. It sounds simple, but in practice, calculating MSY is complex.

Char showing a conceptual graph of Maximum Sustainable Yield. On the X axis is fishing effort. The Y axis is catch yield. The chart shows a bell curve with a linear line indicating fishing costs. There are 3 points marked on the curve. The first indicates maximum economic yield. This is the maximum amount of earnings from fishing, taking operating costs into account. The second point is at the peak of the curve. This is maximum sustainable yield which is the maximum annual catch that can be taken from a species' stock indefinitely without depleting the stock. The final point intersects the fisheries cost line. This is yield without regulation. Without intervention by regulation, fishing effort increases for as long as it remains commercially viable (catch earnings are higher than costs). However, this level of fishing depletes fish stocks.

Achieving MSY is particularly challenging in fisheries where more than one species is targeted, known as ‘mixed fisheries’. This is because fishing at MSY for one species may be detrimental to achieving MSY in others, due to differences in species populations and breeding rates.

The Scottish Government has indicated it will not pursue targets to deliver Maximum Sustainable Yield for all fish stocks as established under the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

The paper states:

“There is a genuine complexity in delivering against fixed MSY targets in mixed fisheries where stocks are subject to individually fluctuating scientific advice.

We strongly support the principle of managing towards MSY, but remain of the view that there are challenges in delivering against specific targets in mixed fisheries. Marine Scotland Scientists are currently engaging in a cross-UK project to consider options for delivering MSY and how to best measure stock sustainability in the future.”

Whilst it is acknowledged that achieving MSY is challenging, if MSY targets are abandoned and not replaced by other sustainability metrics, there is a risk that overfishing will occur. Even with MSY targets previously, political decisions often meant that catch limits exceeded scientific advice for MSY. The chart below shows the top 10 EU Member States (including the UK as a non-Member State) ranked by the proportion and total weight of catch limits set above scientific advice for MSY.

Chart showing the proportion and total weight set above scientific advice in 2020. The data only includes the UK and EU Member States. The chart shows Belgium, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands at the lower end of the scale for both proportion and total weight above scientific advice. This is followed by Spain and Ireland. The UK, Sweden, France and Denmark are highlighted at the higher end of the scale. The UK exceeded scientific advice by 2.1% or 12,207 tonnes. Sweden by 32% or 12,006 tonnes and Denmark by 6.1% or 20,217 tonnes.

Vessel tracking and remote electronic monitoring

Another way of improving the sustainability of fisheries is by adopting technology to support fisheries management. Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) is a form of satellite location tracking system fitted to fishing vessels. By law, all fishing vessels in Scotland over 12m in length are required to have a VMS system installed.

Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) deploys technology such as CCTV cameras, GPS location tracking and sensors fitted to fishing gear to monitor and record fishing activity of vessels at sea.

VMS and REM offer the potential to improve the transparency of governance and enforcement, increasing fishers’ confidence by improving data collection to inform fisheries management measures.

Voluntary adoption of REM by scallop vessels has been available as part of scallop conservation measures introduced by Marine Scotland in 2017. The policy intent paper provides a commitment to make this mandatory and expand to other sectors of the Scottish fleet: 

“we will continue with our voluntary deployment programme of REM for scallop vessels through to summer 2021, and will introduce formal legislation by the end of 2021 to make this mandatory. We will introduce legislation for pelagic vessels fishing within our waters on the same timescale and will also consider options for larger whitefish and Nephrops vessels as part of developing policy on future catching activity.”

Pilot schemes deploying VMS for the Scottish inshore fleet, such as the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund funded Scottish Inshore Fisheries Integrated Data System (SIFIDS) Project have also been carried out. The Scottish Government states its intention to expand the use of this technology:

“For smaller inshore vessels, stakeholders were generally supportive of increased vessel tracking and pointed to the need for data to inform decision making, particularly around marine planning. We will continue to progress this work through our Inshore Modernisation Programme. Proportionate, low cost vessel tracking technology is being tested through our Inshore Fisheries Pilot Programme. Learning from this will inform national deployment of tracking technology across the inshore fleet, planned to commence in 2021.”

Tackling discards

Discarding is the practice of returning unwanted catches to the sea, either dead or alive, because they are undersized, due to market demand, the fisher has no quota or because catch composition rules impose it. Discarding is viewed as wasteful and undermines efforts to fish at sustainable levels.

In 2013, EU Member States agreed to introduce the fisheries landing obligation. This required all fish caught to be landed and counted against quota. It was intended to reduce and ultimately eliminate discarding. It was introduced gradually from 2015 and came fully into force in January 2019.

An inquiry into the implementation of the landing obligation conducted by the House of Lords European Union Committee stated:

“we found little evidence that fishers had adhered to the new rules during the phasing in period, or that there had been any meaningful attempt to monitor or enforce compliance. And witnesses were virtually unanimous in their view that the UK was not ready to implement or enforce the landing obligation from 1 January.”

With the introduction of the landing obligations, fishers also received a ‘quota uplift’ – extra quota provided in recognition that all catches would have to be landed. However, in light of the lack of enforcement of the landing obligation, there is a risk that discarding continues alongside a higher total catch leading to overfishing.

The policy intent paper states:

“there was widespread acknowledgement from stakeholders that there are significant issues with the current discard ban which need to be addressed, although responses were split between a complete overhaul of the system and better enforcement of the current rules and regulations.”

“We will now take all of this into account as we work up proposals for a new Future Catching Policy. We will consult fully on those proposals early 2021.”

With the combination of post-Brexit fishing quotas potentially being set above recommended scientific advice and the continuing practice of discarding, there is a need to implement a workable catching policy to avoid overfishing.

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating a decline in the health of Scotland’s marine environment. Halting and reversing this decline will require innovative approaches to fisheries management like those set out in the Future Fisheries Management Policy Intent Paper.  Looking ahead, there is also a need for the Scottish Government to consider how its approach to fisheries management aligns with its wider policy ambitions in tackling the climate and ecological crisis.

Damon Davies, Environment, Rural, Constitution and International Research Unit

Blog header image by Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash