What can we learn about making fisheries management effective for nature conservation?
A short-term fisheries closure for the protection of spawning (breeding) cod came into force on 14th February for 11 weeks. This is an annual closure, but this year the process has taken a different turn. In previous years, exemptions have been applied to the closure for fishing methods that don’t target adult cod, including scallop dredging, Nephrops (langoustine) trawling and creeling. The irony is that there is a zero total allowable catch (TAC) for cod on the west coast, so in theory there are no vessels targeting cod, although some may be caught as bycatch in methods that are allowed to fish in the closed area under the exemption, such as trawling (there is a small quota allowance for this). This year the Scottish Government took a decision to remove the exemptions for all fishing methods, following a consultation process in Autumn 2021. The basis for this were concerns that fishing activity of any kind may disturb the cod during the spawning process and reduce the potential breeding success. Under the precautionary principle this seemed fairly sensible – scientific evidence is limited or unavailable and despite being in place since 2001 we are yet to see conclusive signs of recovery in Clyde cod populations. With historic over-fishing of cod and population crashes in other areas of Scotland, a change of approach was clearly needed.
In principle removing all fisheries impacts from the cod spawning area during the spawning season seems like a good conservation decision, and LINK members supported that as an application of the precautionary principle, particularly given the previous failure of the closure potentially partly due to exempted fisheries catching or disturbing spawning cod. However, the Clyde fishing community were understandably deeply concerned that many smaller boats not able to use alternative fishing grounds for the duration of the closure. Under pressure the Scottish Government then revised the closure to allow some fishing activity on Nephrops mud habitat, so some trawling and creeling could still take place. But this comes with issues of competing fishing methods operating in a much-reduced space where it is likely to be the lower-impact creel fishers that benefit the least. Mindful of this, we emphasised the opportunity should be taken to apply a zoned approach, ensuring creel-only and mobile-only areas. As we stated in our written views submitted to the Rural Affairs committee last month: Marine Group members consider the cod closure in the Clyde and [sic.] important opportunity for the Scottish Government to demonstrate its intention to deliver ecosystem-based fisheries management and meaningful protection and recovery of important fish stocks, but it should be recognised that this decision is happening in the absence of an urgently needed inshore spatial management framework. Furthermore, these changes all happened only a couple of weeks before the closure was due to come into force. In evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Islands and Natural Environment (RAINE) committee, many branded the whole process a debacle .
Going forward, it is crucial we apply the benefit of hindsight and apply lessons learned to future fisheries management processes.
- Ecosystem-based spatial management of fishing: fish and shellfish are important and intrinsic components of nature, not just an economic commodity and activities that impact them must be managed to protect natural processes, critical habitats and all life stages of a species. Currently fisheries are managed by stock and in isolation from other conservation measures, such as fisheries restrictions within marine protected areas (MPAs). The system needs to work across all these policy areas in a holistic way to ensure that species and habitats can recover, ecosystems can function and thrive and more environmentally friendly fishing activities (e.g. lower impact gear) are given preferential access to fishing grounds. The revised Clyde cod spawning closure could have been done in a much smarter way, perhaps enabling smaller creel boats to operate on the remaining mud habitat within the closure to assess the effect of lower impact gear on the spawning cod and on the Nephrops habitat.
- Transparent and reliable evidence: scientific evidence can be open to interpretation. In this process, stakeholders have highlighted confusion around some of the evidence used to support the revised SSI (Scottish Statutory Instrument) for the Clyde cod spawning closure. For example, in the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee on 2nd March, there was questioning around unpublished studies that are currently unavailable to the public (P18). In the same session it was highlighted that disturbance of spawning fish (one of the main reasons cited for removing the fisheries exemptions) is likely to be less of an issue than bycatch of mature fish in trawls (P21). The key point is to ensure that the evidence being used for a decision is available for all parties to reference, that can be a reliable basis for decisions to ensure ecosystem objectives are met.
- Roll out of REM with cameras: following on from transparency and evidence is the need to effectively monitor fishing activity in Scotland. Fisheries stakeholders in the Clyde cod process have reported discrepancies between industry and government in the number of vessels operating in the closure area. This was noted in the RAINE Committee session of 9th March (P21), and the Scottish Government have committed to investigating this. If all vessels had Remote Electronic Monitoring systems with cameras, not only would there be accurate data on the fishing vessels operating in the area, but there would also be accurate data on bycatch of cod and other non-target species. While the Scottish Government has committed to installing REM with cameras on Scottish vessels, the rollout of the programme has been slow and doesn’t cover all vessel types.
This is a critical time for fisheries management regulation in Scotland and the UK as a whole, with the draft Joint Fisheries Statement (a requirement of the UK Fisheries Act) currently at public consultation, and the various Scottish Government Programme for Government commitments including Future of Fisheries Management roll-out, Future Catching Policy consultation, REM consultation, the cap on inshore fishing activity, remaining MPA and Priority Marine Feature (PMF) fisheries management measures and designation of forthcoming Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs). These processes and policies must work in an integrated, ecosystem-based way, with the input of stakeholders and wider civic society and the recovery of nature at the core.