Prospects for Scottish Fisheries

16 Dec 2019

How Decisions on Fishing Opportunities in 2020 Will ‘Set the Stage’ for the Future of Our Seas

It has been a challenging year for marine and terrestrial environments across the globe. Multiple reports[1] have highlighted the concerning state of the environment, the tipping point we are reaching, and the need for transformative change in how we manage and use the Earth’s natural resources to avoid “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide[2].


The State of the Marine Environment

When thinking about the state of Scotland’s marine environment, two key pressures have been identified as having widespread and significant impacts on our seas, climate change and fishing[3]. It’s often forgotten that commercially valuable fish, shellfish and the habitats they rely on play key roles in the functioning of marine ecosystems, contribute to biological diversity in our oceans and that many are actually classified as Priority Marine Features (PMFs) (and are therefore habitats and species of priority conservation importance).

Our marine environment currently exists in a degraded state[4]. Fish stocks are no exception, with many still feeling the impacts of historical overexploitation[5]. Although the state of fish stocks has seen gradual improvements over the last 30 years[6] (due to improved management of marine ecosystems and fisheries), only 54% of Scotland’s fish stocks are fished sustainably[7].

Scientific Advice and Setting Fishing Opportunities

Whilst not the only consideration, one major factor in promoting stock recovery is how catch limits are set in relation to scientific evidence. Each year the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) publishes its scientific advice, which provides recommendations on sustainable exploitation of commercial fish stocks.

Once all of the advice has been published, annual negotiations between various countries with fisheries interests commence. It is within these meetings that the fishing limits for the forthcoming year are actually determined. In negotiations, ICES advice is taken into account but the final decisions on catch limits often differ from the scientific recommendations, and catch limits are frequently set higher than advised. We have seen that on average, in the last 17 years, two-thirds of Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for EU waters have been set above scientific advice, but (encouragingly) the amount by which TACs have exceeded scientific advice has reduced over time[8].

The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the main instrument governing EU fishing activities (including the UK’s) and, since 2014, has included a deadline for ending overexploitation of all fish stocks by 2020 at the latest (in line with the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) approach)[9]. Whilst it seems unlikely, achievement of this goal is largely dependent on how catch limits are set in relation to scientific advice. Therefore, the decisions made at the 2019 negotiations will be pivotal for ensuring stock sustainability and the ‘MSY by 2020’ deadline.

North Sea Cod – An Update

The 2020 deadline is important for all fish stocks, but one stock in particular will be in the spotlight in this week’s negotiations: cod, one of the UK’s favourite fish. In July, scientific evidence revealed that North Sea cod was in a critical state. ICES advice showed that if this stock was going to be harvested sustainably, then fishing activity in 2020 would need to dramatically change.

The status of cod has improved slightly since we initially expressed our concerns, with ICES revising their original recommendation for a 70% reduction in overall catching opportunities (in line with the MSY approach) to a 61% reduction[10]. It has been widely recognised that it is imperative to utilise a cut in TAC plus additional measures (e.g. closed areas and selectivity measures) if we are to have any hope of recovering North Sea cod. North Sea Governments and stakeholders have been working to identify solutions that simultaneously work for the environment and the industry. An agreement on cod quotas between EU and Norway has just been reached.

Human Activities, the Marine Environment and Fish as Part of the Ecosystem

Scottish Environment LINK has continuously advocated for evidence-led and ecosystem-based management of marine industries, including fisheries. It is critical that current use of the marine environment does not compromise the health of our oceans and their natural assets. Successful fisheries management must incorporate the value of fish as part of the ecosystem (ecosystem-based management) and place sustainability at the core of decision-making. We must fish within the environmental limits of fish stocks and marine ecosystems to ensure that societies and industries reliant on healthy marine environments can continue.

Our natural systems are at a tipping point. We must take immediate and meaningful action to prioritise protection, restoration and enhancement of our environment. At a time when long-term environmental sustainability is high on the agenda, the actions of decision-makers in the annual negotiations will be critical. Following scientific evidence (or taking the precautionary approach in its absence) is the first step in ensuring sustainable use of the marine environment, and is essential if we are to improve the status of Scotland’s fisheries.

You can read more about Scottish Environment LINK’s priorities for Scottish fisheries in our response to the Future of Fisheries Management Discussion Paper here and more about the fisheries quota negotiations here. Further updates will follow into the new year.

By Ruby Temple-Long, Fisheries Policy Officer at the Scottish Wildlife Trust

Photos copyright Chris Gomersall/2020 Vision

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