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The Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament recently held a public hearing on Multispecies Management Plans for fish stocks. Public hearings provide a valuable opportunity for MEPs to hear from experts about the 'real world' practical implications of the topic under discussion - in this case the implementation of new management principles arising from the review of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
We heard contributions from speakers who raised some important issues, including a considerable amount of emphasis on the phased rollout of the landing obligation, otherwise known as the discard ban, which is one of the key changes being introduced as part of the evolution of the CFP.
One of the headline presentations at the hearing was made by Mr Simon Collins, Executive Officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, representing one of the most fisheries-dependent areas to be found anywhere in the European Union. Mr Collins highlighted the importance of the fishing industry to Shetland, where almost a quarter of all jobs are supported by an industry which accounts for a third of the islands’ GDP. Fisheries is absolutely vital to the economic wellbeing of Shetland – and the continued diversity of the islands’ fleet is necessary for the viability of the industry as a whole.
Mr Collins also highlighted the highly mixed nature of the important demersal (white fish) fishery, where different species of fish swim around together – with the average tow of a net resulting in a catch of five or more different species. This underlines the huge complexity involved in implementing the landing obligation. The changes necessary for fishermen to comply with the new regime must be gradual – and must be brought about in full cooperation with the industry itself.
I know that there are grave concerns in the fishing industry of Shetland, the whole of Scotland and, indeed, across the EU. Whilst fishermen themselves have no wish to catch unwanted fish, and most certainly do not want to waste this valuable resource by discarding, the shift of emphasis in the new CFP will require the allowance of a considerable period of time for adjustment.
I am therefore seeking assurances from the European Commission that the gradual implementation of the landing obligation will fully adhere to one of the other key innovations of the supposedly reformed CFP, namely regionalisation. The days of highly complex and rigid rules emanating from Brussels must be surely at an end – and fishermen in areas such as Shetland must be allowed to develop workable systems in conjunction with their local and national authorities. Communities like Shetland are dependent on the long term survival of their local fishing industries – and that requires a pragmatic and regionalised approach from the European Commission.
Nobody wants to see dead fish thrown back into the sea, least of all fishermen themselves. Discards were however part and parcel of the old CFP and it is to be hoped that the new policy can bring improved fisheries management.The changes necessary cannot however be brought about overnight.
Fishermen must be allowed to adapt and develop new systems to comply with the new regime.This means cooperation between the local and national authorities and the fishermen themselves, those who are best placed to know the situation in their own waters. My view is that the discard ban should provide incentives to minimise unwanted catches and therefore to reduce fish mortality, rather than simply relocate the discards problem on to the quayside.