EU and Norway have decided to abandon the management plan for herring in the North Sea, in order to double their catches.
Fisheries ministers meet today and tomorrow in Brussels to set the total allowable catches (TAC) for 2012.
A recent study showed that in a majority of cases, EU fisheries ministers set catch limits that exceed scientific advice.
This year, at least one scientific recommendation is ignored already at the outset of the Council meeting.
There is a long term management plan (LTMP) for herring in the North Sea which only allows the TAC to be increased by no more than 15% each year. But this year, the EU and Norway have signed an agreement to increase catches by more than 100%, from 200,000 tonnes to 405,000 tonnes.
The reason behind this, say Norwegian and EU officials, is that it recently became apparent that the North sea herring stock is somewhat larger than previous calculation had shown. Norway and the EU therefore asked the scientific council ICES for new advice on the stock.
First question to ICES
More precisely, earlier this year the EU and Norway asked ICES whether an in-year revision of the TAC is consistent with the objectives of the LTMP in view of the exceptional increase in the estimated spawning stock biomass (SSB).
ICES replied: “There are technical difficulties in evaluating in-year revisions of the TAC under exceptional circumstances. Moreover, within-year revisions of the TAC could result in management responding to noise in the biological signal. Therefore ICES considers that it is better to have a management plan that can respond to large changes in the biology of the stock or assessment uncertainty, rather than within-year revisions of TACs.”
Second question to ICES
The EU and Norway then sent a new request to ICES, asking what impact it would have with regards to the precautionary approach to abandon the long term management plan.
ICES evaluated five different scenarios, including a 139% increase in TAC. They concluded that all of these scenarios present a low risk for immediate stock collapse. To be more specific, the risk of SSB falling below Blim would be low under the assumed conditions.
Norway & EU agree 100% increase
A Commission official told CFP Reform Watch that the industry has put pressure on the Commission to increase catch levels that the industry regards as “artificially low”.
On 2 December, the EU and Norway announced an agreement on 2012 TACs for jointly managed stocks. “The delegations took note of the ICES response to the joint request for an interim advice on the North Sea herring long-term management plan,” reads the agreement.
Norway wanted to set a TAC of 478,000 tonnes, a Commission official said, while the EU wanted a TAC of 350,000 tonnes. The resulting compromise was to establish a TAC for 2012 at 405,000 tonnes, i.e. an increase of more than 100% from the previous 200,000 tonnes.
Why abandon the management plan?
The European Commission has on several occasions – notably when the CFP reform package was presented – expressed its intention to manage fisheries by establishing long-term management plans and following them.
CFP Reform Watch asked the Commission official who negotiated the deal with Norway if this policy goal could be undermined by abandoning the herring management plan. He replied that in this case it is justified to leave the management plan, since catches could be doubled and still leave fishing mortality within the confinements of maximum sustainable yield (Fmsy).
The Commission wants to reach fishing mortality of Fmsy in all European stocks. Since catches have to be lowered in most stocks to reach that goal, “it is only logical that when catches are lower, we should increase catches towards the level of Fmsy,” the Commission official said.
What ICES actually recommends
Although the EU and Norway pride themselves to have followed science in basing their decision on ICES’ answer to their interim request, they deviate from what ICES actually recommends.
In an email to CFP Reform Watch this week, a senior ICES advisor confirmed that “ICES still considers that within-year revisions of the TAC should be avoided, as in the April advice.”