New procedure for 2012 quota struggle

The European Commission is trying to change the way quotas are set, but the Council may still have the final word.

Each December, fisheries ministers endure long negotiations to determine fishing quotas – a process in which the outcome is often a compromise between scientific advice and the desire of ministers to avoid drastic quota reductions for political reasons.

The dynamics of this yearly tradition might be about to change.

Split of EU and international stocks
This year, for the first time, the European Commission has split the proposals for Total Allowable Catches (TACs) in the Atlantic and North sea into two parts. The first part, presented a couple of weeks ago, covered the 83 fish stocks that are exclusively within EU waters. The second proposal will cover the 66 fish stocks that are co-managed with countries and RFMOs outside the EU.

A Commission official said that one purpose of the split was to make a clear distinction between the stocks for which the EU has 100 percent responsibility and those stocks where the final outcome depends on negotiations with third countries, in order to prevent that international negotiations are used as an argument to compromise with EU quotas.

Initial reactions among the Member States have been negative, since having two regulations for the same geographical area creates a more complicated procedure and adds administrative burden.

It used to be that quotas were set for all fish stocks at the same time, but since a few years the Baltic Sea stocks and deep-sea species are handled separately from the North Sea and Atlantic. The division of EU and international stocks of the can be seen as a continuation of that process.

Timetable changes
“Thanks to splitting the proposal in this way, fishermen will learn sooner how much they can fish in 2012 and be able to plan ahead better,” the Commission wrote in their press statement.

The Commission wants the TACs for the EU stocks to be decided by the fisheries ministers in the Council in November. If this were to happen, it would mark a significant change to the yearly December Council tradition, spreading the setting of quotas over a longer period of time.

But the Council has not yet confirmed when ministers will discuss the North Sea and Atlantic quotas. A Council official declined to comment on dates. It is still possible that the decisions for both the EU stocks and the international stocks will end up being taken in December if that is what the Member States want.

Before the ministers take the final decisions, negotiations on the TACs will be prepared by Member States officials during the next couple of months.

Two categories & precautionary approach
Another new feature this year is that the Commission has abolished the scale of 11 categories that previously described the state of fish stocks and how much the catch could be increased or decreased.

Now, there are just two categories: 1) There is scientific advice for the stock, or 2) there is not. In the second case, the Commission proposes to apply the precautionary approach and reduce TACs with between 15% and 25% until more reliable data are available.

In the Council, this proposal faces stark opposition. Ministers said already during the Council meeting in June that a systematic reduction of 25% does not take into account the specificity of each stock and the socio-economic aspects.

There are no hints that the opposition has become less compact since then. On the contrary, officials from several Member States continue to stress that stocks need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

New compromises
Given the various degrees of dissatisfaction among Member States, we can be sure to see some changes to the Commission’s TAC proposals before the end of the year. Based on the Member States’ comments, the Commission may present a revised proposal that can form the base of a compromise between the Council and the Commission.

Whatever the result of the quota negotiations ends up to be, the road leading there is different this year.

Axel Naver

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