Historic vote opens a new chapter for EU fisheries

Following an historic vote in Strasbourg on Tuesday 10 December, the complete reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been finalised with unanimous approval. The four crucial elements of the reform involved ending discards; devolving day-to-day management to Member States; blocking any move towards internationally transferable fishing concessions and introducing the concept of Maximum sustainable Yields for future long-term sustainable stock management. My own legislative report on the Common Organisation of the Markets for Fisheries & Aquaculture Products (CMO) was also approved unanimously without any amendments.

The €6.574 billion European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) covering the next 7 years to 2020 is the last outstanding part of the package still to be approved. Meetings between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament will continue almost up until Christmas, in an attempt to reach agreement but it looks likely that key parts of the fisheries fund will remain to be decided in the early part of next year.

On the key policy areas, a tight timetable has been set, species by species and fishery by fishery, to achieve the discards ban, starting with small pelagic species like mackerel and herring at 1st January 2015, then covering white fish species like cod, haddock and whiting by 1st January 2016 and including all other species by 1st January 2019. Financial incentives will be provided to fishermen to help them purchase new gear that helps to avoid unwanted by-catch and to fit CCTV to every vessel to monitor compliance with the new controls. Strict rules on what can be done with landed fish that previously would have been discarded over the side have been agreed, with juvenile fish sold for conversion into fish meal and fish oil. There are sensible derogations in place that will enable species with a high-survivability, such as crabs and prawns to be placed back in the water.

On the core issue of regionalisation, the European Parliament sensibly voted for a new system, which will see the European Commission setting the basic framework for the CFP, while Member States will have day-to-day responsibility for managing the implementation of quotas, days-at-sea and technical measures. Only where a Member State fails to abide by the Commission’s framework, could Brussels claw back the power to the centre. This is a major breakthrough that has been hard fought and won against serious resistance from certain powerful EU Member States and their Commissioners, who loathe the idea of returning sovereignty to the regions.

We also scored a great victory on the question of Transferable Fishing Concessions (TFCs). The original Commission proposal envisaged the long-term transfer of TFCs between nations. They firmly believed that this market-based system would transform the fisheries sector and end fleet over-capacity in some Member States. However, there was massive concern from almost everyone except Spain, that such a system would enable huge, wealthy fisheries companies in Vigo to snap up fishing quotas around the UK and elsewhere. Not only would this mean that Spanish trawlers would displace Scottish trawlers on the grounds, it would mean that the catches would be landed in Galicia rather than in Scotland, costing thousands of jobs in our ports, harbours and processing sector. Happily, common sense prevailed and TFCs will not now be up for grabs.

Finally, on the fundamental issue of future stock management, Parliament voted in favour of a new management system based on Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). A strict timetable has been agreed meaning that all of the key commercial stocks will have to be fished at sustainable levels starting from 2015 where possible and by 2020 at the latest.

On the controversial question of multi-annual plans on which there has been an inter-institutional dispute for the past four years, the Lithuanian Presidency set up a special Task Force, involving high-level representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. I was asked to chair the Task Force and we have now scored a major breakthrough with an initial agreement affecting future long-term plans for single species, pelagic stocks. This inter-institutional pact will hopefully pave the way for a future accord involving multi-species mixed fisheries. Once multi annual plans have been adopted for all commercial species, it means the annual gladiatorial battle just before Christmas, when EU Fisheries Ministers meet in Brussels to thrash out Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas for the year ahead, will end. Fishermen will have the confidence of knowing what they are allowed to catch for up to 5 years or more. This will also enable them to borrow capital from the banks to build new vessels or modernise existing ones.

There was also a resounding defeat for MEPs who tried to overturn a wide-ranging compromise thrashed out in the Fisheries Committee after many months of work, on deep water trawling. The compromise was supported by all the political groups, bar the Greens who abstained. Nevertheless, on the eve of the crucial vote in Strasbourg, some Socialists and Lib Dems broke ranks and in an outright defiance of normal parliamentary procedure, tabled amendments that sought a one-size-fits-all outright ban of all deep water trawling below 600 metres. For ports that rely entirely on their deep water fleet, support for an outright ban would have been disastrous, effectively destroying the whole community. By a massive 597 votes to 91, MEPs rejected a total ban and instead voted for targeted, risk-based measures which will protect the seabed and endangered deep water species, while allowing sustainable fishing to continue.

Against the background of improving fish stocks in Scottish and UK waters, I believe the newly agreed CFP can now provide our fishing sector with a prosperous and sustainable future.