Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580-599)

Mr Poul Degnbol, Mr Ernesto Peñas and Ms Lisa Borges

7 MAY 2008

  Q580  Chairman:Good morning. We perfectly appreciate that Mr Fotiadis is not able to be with us today but thank you all for coming. We are a Sub-Committee of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union. We are doing an inquiry into the future of the Common Fisheries Policy. We have been taking evidence in the United Kingdom and, as in the case of all our inquiries, we have now come to Brussels to see the Commission and Members of the Parliament and some of the Member State representatives as well. At the moment we are still enormously confused—I am not going to say "impressed"—by the complexity of the Common Fisheries Policy.

  Mr Degnbol: Welcome to the club.

  Q581  Chairman: That is an awful relief. Technically this is a formal evidence-taking session so a note will be taken, a transcript will be made available to you as soon as possible and you can do any corrections that are necessary if errors have come into it. Would you like to start by making an initial statement or would you prefer to go straight on to the questions that we have identified?

  Mr Degnbol: We would just like to say thank you for inviting us here and again we apologise on behalf of Mr Fotiadis that he was not able to make it to this meeting. We are, as I am sure you have appreciated, in the process of an internal reflection on the CFP and the future of it. We look forward to the product of this Committee because it is very important work which is being done here and it will certainly be a very important input into our process as well as for your own purposes.

  Q582  Chairman: Could you give us an explanation for the reorganisation of what was "DG Fish" into DG Mare and what the structural changes have been and the reasons behind that change?

  Mr Peñas: In short, there are two main motivations for this change of structure. First, there is the need to integrate the former task force for maritime policy. Once the task force had accomplished its work it had to be integrated into the whole structure as maritime policy is going to be integrated as part of the policy of the Commission. The second motivation was that it was felt by the Commissioner and the Director-General that there were not sufficient symmetries among the different pillars of the policy, particularly between structural policy and conservation policy, and in order to improve the synergies it was preferred to take a regional approach to this. It was felt that it was much better to look into the synergies among the different pillars of the policy at a national level and also at a regional level, and that obviously required a change in the structure to turn a structure based on the vertical pillars of the policy—conservation on the one hand and structures, markets and extra navigations on the other hand—into a regionally based structure. We now have three regional directorates covering three broad geographical areas—the Western Atlantic, the North Sea plus the Baltic and Mediterranean/Black Sea. Within these three general directorates of a regional nature there are units responsible for the different pillars of the policy. Therefore, in a single directorate we will be able to handle all the policy elements and issues of a given region and a given Member State. Of course, this regional approach includes on a regional basis the maritime policy into which the Common Fisheries Policy will be integrated. Those are the two motivations for this change.

  Q583  Viscount Brookeborough: The introduction of recovery and management plans was the main plank of the 2002 reform of the CFP. Why have so few recovery and management plans been adopted so far? What can be done to speed up the process and improve the results delivered? We understand that you have recently published a revised cod recovery plan.

  Mr Peñas: Yes, it is true that the number of recovery and management plans is limited. They have focused on the main species but they are still admittedly rather limited. The reasons are that the capacity of the Commission to produce these plans, the capacity of stakeholders within RACs to examine Commission proposals and the capacity of Member States to try to discuss and digest these plans are very limited. If we try to produce more plans RACs immediately react by saying, "We cannot handle so many things at a time. We need more time for this", and then the system does not absorb so much initiative. A similar problem happens with Member States. We do have a committee in the Council, the Technical Committee, that examines at technical level all Commission proposals, and if we speed up dramatically the number of Commission initiatives this group immediately reacts by saying, "We cannot handle so many proposals at the same time. You have to space them over time", and therefore the whole system in the Commission, in Member States and among stakeholders within RACs is not capable of absorbing and handling so many plans at a time, particularly taking into account that these recovery plans inevitably have to have an impact assessment. That impact assessment is sometimes a complex exercise in which we have to evaluate economic consequences and data for these evaluations are not necessarily at our disposal immediately, and therefore it requires time to get the data to do the impact assessment, so the whole process is complicated. It was always complicated but it has been made more complicated by a relatively newly introduced element, the stakeholders' consultation, which is, of course, a major step forward in the CFP but is a step that does require time, not only from us but also from stakeholders to absorb, discuss and handle these proposals.

  Q584  Viscount Brookeborough: Is part of the problem with this lack of data going back far enough and/or lack of funds being put into scientific research either in the past or currently, and are there sufficient methods whereby you can get accurate reporting from the stakeholders real-time as opposed to meeting them two or three times a year? Could there not be a more streamlined mechanism for reporting what is going on?

  Mr Peñas: As I see it, there are two questions within your question. First of all, there is the question of data availability. Data availability is a problem in terms of quality for the biological part of it, and this is nothing new, but it is also a problem of the absolute lack of data in historical terms on the economic side. It is a well-known fact that, while biological information for the main fisheries has existed for decades (it may of imperfect quality but it does exist), the economic data to carry out the economic evaluation are often missing. The Commission is now making a big effort to try and collect this data, primarily through the Data Collection Regulation and funding to Member States in this regard, and the problem is that it has been helpful to try to provide recent data but it is much more difficult to build a historical series of data and therefore the economic data are still missing from a certain lack of tradition of collecting and studying these data. We are making a big effort, but money is part of the problem and money is being spent by the Commission through the Data Collection Regulation to fill this gap. The gap that cannot be filled so easily is this lack of tradition and also a certain shortage of well-trained people on the economic side of fishery to carry out all the necessary work.

  Mr Degnbol: There is an issue regarding scientific advice in general.

  Q585  Chairman: You mentioned the problem being one really of time, just how long things take. Surely one of the new complexities is the move to co-decision. Is that going to add even further to the time problem?

  Mr Peñas: Yes.

Chairman: Nice and crisp!

  Q586  Lord Plumb: I spent 20 years in the European Parliament and co-decision has been on the go for a long time. There has been an element (not compulsory) of co-decision taking place, so why should it take any longer once it becomes established?

  Mr Peñas: It is for the simple reason that we should compare co-decision in the fisheries sector to the current way of doing things. Perhaps in other sectors they are used to using this method but you have to remember that the Common Fisheries Policy is a common policy which is worked out through Council regulations. There are many of them every year. This is a typical example of a very heavy production of regulations every year. This is not a policy where you do a directive every five years that you can do through co-decision without a major problem. This is a sector where we produce several or even dozens of regulations per year and if all those have to be done through co-decision then you can certainly expect a prolonged procedure to adopt them. Basically, co-decision in the Common Fisheries Policy only adds an extra layer to the current administrative burden.

  Mr Degnbol: It is seen as more cumbersome, and you will discuss this with Mr Borg this afternoon, but there may be a beneficial outcome in that first of all there is more democratic scrutiny to the process, but the second issue is that it may help in terms of making a clear hierarchy between decisions which are on a longer term principle, ie, the real policy level, and more the implementation level. The TACs and quota decisions are exempted from co-decision but that in our view means that they should follow more mechanically from the principle which has been established, such as long term management plans through co-decision, and that may contribute to a more sustainable fisheries in the longer term. It is a possibility.

  Mr Peñas: It is clear that one of the challenges that we have ahead of us is whether we can succeed in changing the relative weight of the Council of Ministers vis-a"-vis other institutions, indeed, the Commission, and also why not in certain instances Member States in terms of who does what. For example, it is simply unthinkable that you will require Parliament and Council decisions to just adapt on technical grounds a regulation on technical conservation measures. The introduction of co-decision really will force every one of us in Member States to re-think who does what and particularly who does technical regulations. I think we all know that parliaments do laws, not regulations. The Common Fisheries Policy is done through a series of regulations, some of which can be considered as being laws in the sense that they basically state principles, but many others—and this is our daily job—are very technical and detailed regulations and then the question is, should Parliament with the Council still do these kinds of technical regulations or should that be done by the Commission through comitology or in some cases can this be devolved to Member States?.

  Q587  Viscount Brookeborough: We are aware that the new cod recovery plan allows Member States to develop specific mechanisms to encourage the reduction of discards and the application of cod-avoidance programmes. You are presumably aware of the Scottish Executive's real-time closures and conservation credits scheme. What is your view of those schemes and what other types of initiative might you expect Member States to adopt?

  Mr Peñas: The acceptance of this principle comes from the fact that the regulation applicable to the effort limitation system within Community law was considered by everyone as overly complex. I think this is nobody's or everybody's fault and it is the December negotiation in which basically Member States, under pressure from the industry, request more special conditions, derogations and things like that, and that results inevitably in a regulation that tends to be overly complex. In order to resolve this we undertook last year to try to devolve some of the technical details of what you can do to avoid by-catches of cod to the industry itself or the Member State concerned. That was the philosophy and under this philosophy Commissioner Borg, who I am sure will explain it to you this afternoon, considered that it was worth giving this a try and therefore he was very happy to give the opportunity to Member States to set up plans at national level where, on the basis of initiatives from fishermen, we will be testing other ways of reducing cod discards, so yes, the Commission considered that we should try new ways of handling this, and if the centralised, very complex regulations do not seem to be working to everyone's satisfaction let us try another approach. This is what is happening this year and the Commission is very interested to see what is happening with this development. What is important also to note is that the position of the Commission in this case is that this is an opportunity for Member States to make this work but at the same time it is a big responsibility because now you can no longer blame Brussels if this goes wrong. You have only yourself to blame if this does not work. This is the philosophy under which this was done.

  Q588  Viscount Brookeborough: And has each nation come up with a similar type of operation as Scotland or are some of them very different? Could you give us an example of one or two?

  Mr Peñas: There are other projects going on, for example, a project presented by Germany to try to use industry-based initiatives to reduce by-catches of cod and discards, and in Denmark there have been some attempts to do this. You are probably aware that Scotland has been able to agree on certain measures with Denmark, but by and large the kind of complexity and sophistication, dare I say, of the Scottish initiative I have not seen from other Member States.

  Q589  Lord Plumb: Can I follow up that point because we got the impression last week, when meeting with some of the people in Aberdeen, that they are also trying to get some agreements with Norway?

  Mr Peñas: Yes, I think there have been informal contacts with Norway but, as you know, whether these agreements are formalised will have to be decided through the annual negotiation with Norway.

  Q590  Lord Plumb: That is what I hoped you would say.

  Ms Borges: I would like to add a little bit more on the discards just to say that, although some of the Member States took the initiative to do some of the projects to reduce or at least to study discards, we felt it was not enough to deal with the issue of discarding, and therefore we have just released a consultation paper for stakeholders on ideas for how we can progress in the future with discarding. We still maintain the attitude that it should be for Member States to resolve the issue specifically on fisheries, but we want to put a bit more incentive into that and so we have established targets for discarding which are specific to fisheries and give a specific time limit which Member States should follow. In a way we were saying, "Yes, please give us initiatives. We would very much welcome that, but you do need to follow those targets". We are now in the process of negotiating with stakeholders and we will have a legislative proposal at the end of the year.

  Q591  Viscount Ullswater: The Commission currently manages fisheries very much through TACs and effort control—quotas, days at sea, however it is interpreted. How satisfied are you that these are the correct management tools? Should more emphasis be put on effort control and do you see that there are problems with the implementation of effort control? I think you mentioned a moment ago that it might be too overwhelming.

  Mr Peñas: It is fair to say that we are not particularly satisfied with the way TACs are working. It is a well-known fact that TACs have basically two problems. First of all, there is a general problem of lack of compliance with TACs. The quota overshoot by national fleets is a phenomenon that exists all round the Community, so from the Baltic to the Iberian Peninsula it is a widespread problem. It is a system that has not been strictly respected, to say the least. Another problem is that it is still a system based on individual species, so it is a system that sets individual TACs, individual catch limitations from individual species, when we know very well that fishermen do not catch individual species; they catch assemblies of species that are found together in the same fishery, and therefore that almost inevitably carries the risk of making the TACs for individual species not match each other, so that what you have at the end of the day are different catch limitations for species that are caught together but do not necessarily match and this can produce discards, it can produce shortages of certain quotas while fishing for other species that are fully available and so on, so they have at least these two major problems. In fact, the scientific community for a number of years has been telling us very clearly that the TACs are not really controlling fishing mortality (which is the basic parameter we need in order to manage fisheries) and that direct effort control is necessary. This is the reason why we introduced effort control. Effort control existed in certain schemes before but only as of 2003, in the context of 2002, in the context of the cod recovery plan, has it started to be used as a real management tool. Now it has been extended to other areas. We have effort control now in the Baltic, in the Iberian Peninsula, in other places, and the experience of this is mixed. In principle you may expect that effort control should resolve some of the problems that I have mentioned in terms of the multi-species nature of the fishery. Effort control is a good solution for that, and the other potential benefit of effort management is that it should in principle be easier to enforce and simpler to control. We are not there yet and the reason is that, because of the political negotiation in the December Council, the effort management system that we have in place today has grown so complex that it has become just as difficult to control as the TACs, if not more. This is an instrument that still carries tremendous potential for being very easy to control but the way it is applied now within the famous Annex 2 of the TAC and Quota Regulation certainly this complexity does not lend itself very much to good control. An added problem is that it is easier at Community level to add a new instrument like effort control than it is to get rid of another one like TACs and quotas, and TACs and quotas are extremely difficult to get rid of for a very simple reason, which is that they are the carriers of relative stability and relative stability is a principle that for most Member States has been a sacred principle of the Common Fisheries Policy and it is politically extremely sensitive and extremely difficult to do away with it in the way that we believe we should do away with it. What this has meant as a result is that we have introduced a new instrument, effort management, as recommended by the scientific community but we have not done away with the existing one and the problem is then that we have a kind of double system of management of catch limitation through TACs and quotas and effort limitation at the same time, so we have a system which is growing very complex because we can develop one instrument but it is not easy to do away with the other one.

  Q592  Viscount Ullswater: Are you suggesting with effort control that you should land all the fish that are caught?

  Mr Peñas: At present that is not possible.

  Q593  Viscount Ullswater: Would that not be the purpose of effort control?

  Mr Peñas: Yes, that would be the idea.

  Q594  Viscount Ullswater: So why are you saying it is not possible?

  Mr Peñas: Because of relative stability. For example, if a vessel from a Member State that has no quota for cod goes out and respects effort limitation but inevitably catches some amount of cod, even if that vessel from that Member State has fully complied with the effort limitation that vessel is not entitled to catch any cod and therefore it will have to discard it immediately because relative stability in terms of catch quotas does not allow that Member State to keep that cod on board. Therefore, while the TAC and quota system with relative stability survives, it will not necessarily be possible to keep all the fish on board.

  Q595  Viscount Ullswater: Would it not be a good idea to do so in order to measure the by-catch, the discards, because at the moment you talk about relative stability but that is purely a figure on a piece of paper? It does not measure the fish mortality of the species, so do you still feel that that is irreconcilable with the present structure of management?

  Mr Degnbol: Yes. In the framework in which we have the discard policy, and I do not know whether you have looked into the complications we made on that last year, there is the concept of trying in the longer term to move to a system where it is mandatory to keep fish on board. Of course, within relative stability, within that TAC-based system, you would not be allowed to sell this fish above your basic quota on the market so you would be required to land it but it would basically be confiscated, but it is part of that perspective and that would be a strong driver to avoid catching it because there are costs involved in keeping fish on board which you are not paid for.

  Ms Borges: Some of this discussion has also been included in the latest released consultation paper. There are issues with a discard ban about how good is the data. One of the issues is that there are good data available already now with observer programmes and scientific programmes, although, of course, you would increase those data if you had access to what is discarded. There is also the issue that some of the species that are discarded can survive. If you have a discard ban you are forcing fish mortality in species that could otherwise survive, such as shark. It is complicated. There are a lot of issues related to the discard ban that might not be initially seen, so although we still discuss it we are going for a reduction of discards and in the longer term we might consider a discard ban.

  Q596  Viscount Brookeborough: Would there not be an issue sometimes in the boats if there was a discard ban about the amount of room that these discards were taking up in that it may not be beneficial financially to dump them but the quantities would be a problem?

  Mr Degnbol: Exactly. This is a strong economic incentive not to catch them. The whole concept of this initiative is to leave it to the industry to find solutions and not make all kinds of detailed technical measures. You say, "Okay: you have a problem keeping it on board. Don't catch it in the first place. That solves your problem."

Chairman: This is fascinating. It is obviously a very important issue but we have spent quite a lot of time on it and we are going to have to miss some of the questions, but let us press on.

  Q597  Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: We have touched on this a little bit already, the issue of scientific advice. We have received, as I am sure you already know, a lot of evidence about the frustration of fishermen who are telling us that their experience out at sea is very different from the scientific advice that you are receiving, and we know that part of that problem is the retrospective way that the information is provided to you. It seems to me that one of the advantages of the current system, as you were saying, is that we have quite long records going back because the scientific evidence has been collected in the same way for a very long time, but it is equally very frustrating because you would think that science would have moved on and that people would be slightly more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago. First, I think you have already acknowledged that there is a problem, but do you see a way round that and a way of improving the scientific advice, which I think is key to a lot of the things we are talking about?

  Mr Degnbol: I think we have first of all to identify what is the real problem here, and when it is said that there is large uncertainty, there is uncertainty when it comes to prediction of the catch next year, but for nearly all our stocks there is not large uncertainty about the state of the stock or in which direction to move in management. It is very clear that for most of our stocks they are over-fished and we need to reduce the fishing pressure. There is no uncertainty about that. When it comes to making a catch prediction next year there is an uncertainty issue and there are several contributors to that, some of which we can do something about. The first problem is that when you have over-fished stocks the catch prediction for next year is based on the incoming year class, which is the one which is the most poorly known of everything. It is a paradox that when we have most need of good data, which is mainly when we have serious over-fishing, we have the largest concerns about the forecasts because we live from the new-borns and we do not have a good number on those, so just by reducing the fishing pressure, which is our aim in the MSY policy, we would increase certainty in the forecasts; that is part of that. I hope it is not too technical now but basically we are creating uncertainty by over-fishing. The second problem is non-compliance, that we have a problem with black landings, non-legal landings, and we can see this in the data, that there are fish disappearing from the system to unknown places and this adds to the uncertainty in a lot of cases, so better enforcement is a key also to repairing that. But then, of course, there remains an uncertainty, which is the assembling of the data and not actually making a census on the fish in the sea. Biological parameters are not always precise, and that is an irreducible uncertainty and that has to be addressed by the way we set the management system up. You may ask what is the problem if there is some uncertainty in a catch forecast, a residual uncertainty. To some extent you can say that it does not matter that much because basically the fish we leave in the sea this year are available for you to catch next year. The system will regulate itself in that if there is a bit of under-fishing this year you will get a higher catch forecast next year and you will catch up with it. The way we are proposing TACs these days, we are proposing a kind of window so you can only move within a window to give stability to the industry, and that contains this uncertainty, so that you are able to keep up with the uncertainty next year. We are a little bit concerned about this focus on having the most precise and up-to-date prediction because it is based on this illusion that you have to be there now and get it. If I could be a little bit provocative, we have as an example presently a proposal from France, supported by the UK and Ireland, to increase the quota on Celtic sea cod next year, and this is based on an observation from a survey that there is no more from the incoming year class than we saw when the advice was coming out. We do not need to increase the quota because these are two-kilo fish. If you leave them one year more in the sea they will be 4.5 kilos. By fishing them this year you are burning up future catch options and if you look for more than one year you are having a negative result of this. You do not need to be that up to date because they are in the sea still and you will have better options next year for catching them, so uncertainty may not need to be such a big problem because the system is a kind of cybernetic. It will adjust along the way.

  Q598  Chairman: Does that not argue against single-year TACs? Does it not argue in favour of multi-year TACs?

  Mr Degnbol: Not necessarily. It argues against setting a single-year TAC by focusing on the catch in that year only. You should always look at this in a medium-term perspective, that you can go the whole line down and set a multi-year TAC where you would then need monitoring mechanisms to warn you if there was a really serious problem going on, but you could have a system of multi-year TACs with mechanisms for warning and fast decisions if an issue arose.

  Q599  Viscount Ullswater: It is interesting to see that you have reorganised your DG to coincide with the RACs.

  Mr Degnbol: It is no coincidence.

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