Fisheries Council - Past the hoopla, a good result for Scottish Fishermen
The November European Fisheries Council made the news this week. Usually it takes the December quota discussions to get coverage for any Council meeting. The papers focused on the key issue: 'Who speaks for Scotland?' Could an unelected peer seriously speak for Scotland? Surely the UK delegation should have been led by Mr Lochhead, the EU's longest serving fisheries minister. I even waded into the debate, suggesting that the Smith Commission may have a role to play in resolving the matter.
While constitutional debates are all jim-dandy, there was another issue that perhaps deserves a little attention. What was actually discussed at the Fisheries Council? For the record, there was only one item on the agenda: 'Fishing opportunities 2015 for certain deep-sea stocks'. Sounds innocuous, doesn't it. Anything but.
To give you some background, deep water stocks - amongst the ugliest fish in the sea -comprise slow-growing, long-lived, fish principally found in the waters to the West of the British Isles. It is the slow growing aspect of the stocks that make them particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure. In the past, the pressure was too high, and the stocks declined. However, recent management measures have encouraged a welcome recovery.
The Commission intends to introduce further restrictions on the fishery, deploying a maximum sustainable yield (MSY) approach and from 1st January 2016, introducing a discard ban. Scientists are currently advocating modest cuts in most of the deep water stocks and the Commission is inclined to agree. The role of Fisheries Council is to determine whether this approach is right.
The UK argument was simple and straightforward; species which are in robust health should not experience any further quota cut. Catches should be set in line with scientific advice. This would translate into modest cuts for a number of stocks, but increases in the stocks doing well. Important to stress that this was the Scottish argument advanced by Mr Lochhead during pre-Council meeting when the UK position was determined.
However, a concern for Scotland was the Commission’s proposal to combine two separate stocks of grenadier fish within a single Total Allowable Catch (TAC). Since Scotland catches 72% of the UK quota, this was important, particularly with the recommendation to set the new catch limit lower; this would have resulted in a 20% catch reduction for Scottish fishermen. Importantly the change would have also resulted in a fundamental revision of the ‘Relative Stability Key’, which will mean nothing to fish eaters but everything to fish catchers.
It was upon this issue that the UK raised concern in the negotiations. The argument advanced by us was that the TACs must be set according to science. As a result, the UK was given reassurance from the Commission that there would no change in the Relative Stability Key and that no Scottish quota would be lost in the adjustment.
So that was the key issue of the Fisheries Council, resolved according to the needs of Scottish fishermen by the UK Government, working in close collaboration with the Scottish Government and the representations of the other members of the UK family.