Fisheries: implementation and enforcement of the EU landing obligation Contents

Chapter 4: The challenge of ‘choke’ species

31.In order to prevent overfishing, vessels have a maximum quota for different species of fish that they can land. The process whereby quotas for each species are calculated and allocated to vessels is summarised in Box 3.

Box 3: How fishing quota is allocated

Most fish stocks in Europe have annual catch limits, known as total allowable catches (TACs). These are agreed in negotiations at the EU Council of fisheries ministers, using advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. The TACs are then divided among Member States as quotas, with shares based on a historical reference period dating back to the 1970s. Member States are then responsible for allocating their quota shares to their national fleets (in the UK the quota is split between the four UK nations and then divided among the fleet). There are 23 Producer Organisations (POs) in the UK which allocate and manage quota for their members; quota allocation to smaller vessels and those whose owners are not members of POs is done by the relevant body in each administration: Marine Scotland, Welsh Government, the Northern Irish Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Marine Management Organisation.

Source: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, UK Fisheries Management, POSTnote 572, February 2018

32.This system of allocating quotas, when combined with the landing obligation, creates significant difficulties in ‘mixed fisheries’—that is, fisheries that include fish of a variety of ages and species. Before the landing obligation was introduced, fishers discarded fish they caught if they went over quota (that is how they achieved compliance); now they are required to land all catches. But, as Allan Gibb from Marine Scotland told us: “In the mixed fisheries you cannot dictate exactly what is going to come up in your net.”50 So, as Hazel Curtis, Chief Economist at Seafish, explained: “When you run out of one quota … the expectation [is] that you would not be able to continue fishing in that sea area with that fishing gear if there is a risk that you would catch more of the stock for which you have run out of quota.”51 This is known as ‘choking’, and, as the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) told us: “There has been a growing recognition that the principal problem with implementing the EU landing obligation … lies with the risk of ‘chokes’ in mixed fisheries.”52

33.The obligation to land all catches could result in quotas for some species being met very quickly. This would result in vessels operating in mixed fisheries having to cease fishing, despite having quota available for other species, because they cannot guarantee they can avoid catching any more of the ‘choke’ species.

The scale of the choke problem

34.The fishing industry is extremely concerned about the impact that chokes could have on fishers’ livelihoods. The NFFO told us: “Chokes could cause vessels, or fleets, to tie up early in the year, with serious social and economic consequences.”53 Graham Doswell, a fisher from Eastbourne, agreed that fishers “will be closed and tied up within a week or two”.54 Skipper David Stevens told us: “For our fishery in the Southwest it is expected that the haddock choke as it stands at present will tie the fleet up within 8 weeks into the New Year.”55 Jeremy Percy, from the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, described a simulation of the landing obligation that took place several years ago:

“They were given plenty of quota for a six-month trial as if they were running under the landing obligation. The project lasted for five weeks before they ran out of quota … [The skipper] said that, no matter how hard they tried to avoid fish for which they had no quota or that were undersized, now and again they brought them up.”56

35.The impact of chokes will vary, as Hazel Curtis told us: “Different groups of vessels have different degrees of choke problem, depending on the quota allocation they currently have. Some of them would run out early in the year, some would get halfway through the year, and some would get nearly all the way through the year.”57

36.The implications are stark. The South East Fishermen’s Protection Association told us: “Fishermen will be severely financially affected or bankrupted. Crew will lose their jobs. Fish markets will suffer reductions in landings and have to reduce staff.”58 David Stevens said: “We will face bankruptcy as an industry”;59 and the Coastal Producer Organisation told us that “the rules as they stand will destroy small businesses commercially”.60 Modelling undertaken by Seafish suggests that £165 million worth of fish could remain uncaught in 2019 as a result of the landing obligation.61

37.Fisheries Minister George Eustice MP acknowledged that chokes would be a significant problem: “Our expectation is that … parts of the fleet could be choked and have to tie up half way through the year.”62

38.The ramifications of adhering to the landing obligation could be so severe that some witnesses thought the rules would simply be ignored. The NFFO stated: “A very strong incentive will … be created for fishing vessels to discard those species which would lead to choking their operations.”63 Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the NFFO, argued:

“Put yourself in the position of the captain of a vessel who looks at his portfolio of quotas and can see that he will run out of one, which means that he will have to stop fishing for the other five, or 25, depending on the area. What is he going to do? His business, his crew and his house—everything—depends on what happens now.”64

Jeremy Percy agreed: “One fisherman I spoke to stated: ‘We have a choice: we go broke because of the choke species … or we become criminals. We are not going to go broke’.”65

39.It was shocking to hear, on the eve of the new rules coming into force, that the industry, researchers and the Government all thought the landing obligation could result in some of the UK fishing fleet being required to stop fishing part way through the year.

40.There is a clear risk that the economic impact of chokes on fishers provides a strong, perhaps irresistible, incentive to break the law by continuing to discard fish caught over quota.

Could more selective fishing help?

Changing how you fish

41.Dr Tom Catchpole, Principal Fisheries Advisor at Cefas, told us that “changing the way you fish and changing the design of the fishing net” could help fishers avoid catching fish they do not want.66 Marine biologist George Charalambides agreed: “Technical solutions can potentially be very effective at reducing discards and catches of choke species, while in theory, being relatively easy to apply.”67

42.DiscardLess told us:

“In 2018, the STECF [Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries] convened an Expert Working Group to assess the risk of choke species in the North Western Waters … The outcome of the analyses was that improved gear selectivity using existing modifications would certainly contribute to improving the situation for a number of stocks.”68

43.The STECF also found, however, that improved selectivity “would not solve all issues for the stocks scored in the highest risk level”.69 The NFFO agreed: “Moving towards optimum selectivity … is easier in some fisheries than others. The physiology of some species, and catch compositions of different species in the catch, limit the extent to which unwanted catch can be minimised at sea.”70 The South East Fishermen’s Protection Association gave an example of this:

“In mixed fisheries over 20 species are regularly caught. It is quite normal for there to be at least six TAC species within these 20. Each of these species have a completely different physical size and shape. Each have completely different minimum landing sizes. If gear is modified to select out a certain size of one species that happens to have a wide, flat profile, that will not suit a small round species. Conversely a gear configuration that is designed to avoid round fish bycatch would still capture small flat fish. It is impossible to create gear that will achieve discard avoidance for all species.”71

44.Mike Park, Chief Executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, highlighted another limitation of increased selectivity: “If you get selectivity to the point that you remove every unwanted species of fish or crustacean in your net, the chances are that you are losing some of the commercial aspects of the catch.”72 This was borne out by David Steven’s personal experience: “We reduced undersize fish being caught by 87% using a new technical measure in our nets … However we still faced a discard issue with haddocks and an economic loss on all other species of 15%.”73

45.The under ten metre fishing fleet emphasised that increased selectivity would not solve their choke issues. Jeremy Percy explained: “Because 80% of our members use passive gear, which is more selective, we will struggle to be more selective in the size of fish, but very often we cannot avoid catching fish.”74

46.Notwithstanding these reservations, we heard frustration that there had not been more take-up of selective technology during the landing obligation’s phasing-in period. Samuel Stone, from the Marine Conservation Society, said: “There have been a lot of trials on how selectivity can be improved … but it does not seem that the outcomes of those trials have been adopted and taken forward … It would have been nice to see some of the outcomes becoming commonplace and implemented in the fleets.”75

47.Helen McLachlan, from WWF-UK, agreed:

“Although trials have been successful, there has been no rollout or adoption of them further afield than the vessels that trialled them. Part of that may be about money and could be addressed by the EMFF [European Maritime and Fisheries Fund]. Part of it is because people do not know whether that is where they should invest their business plan.”76

She explained that “a specific reason cited for EMFF funding for this period was to assist with the introduction of the landing obligation”, but she did not think the UK had “taken good advantage” of this.77

48.Dr Catchpole suggested the low take-up of selective technology was linked to the landing obligation’s lack of impact to date: “The idea of the landing obligation is to try to create an incentive so that there is an economic advantage in avoiding those catches by modifying trawls and doing other things. We have not yet got to the point where that incentive has started to bite.”78 Fisheries researcher Grant Course made a similar point: “Unless there is an effective monitoring regime, then where is the incentive to introduce selective fishing and reduce discarding, if discarding can continue unseen and unpunished?”79

49.Using different types of equipment could enable some fishers to fish more selectively, thus avoiding species for which they have little or no quota and so reducing the risk of chokes.

50.However, the extent to which selectivity can reduce choke risks depends on the fishery, and some fishers are already highly selective.

51.Although a number of trials have been conducted, the landing obligation does not yet appear to have incentivised fishers to adopt more selective gear. The extent to which this may change now the landing obligation applies to all fisheries may depend on how badly fishers are affected by chokes and how strictly the ban on discards is enforced.

Changing where you fish

52.George Charalambides identified another potential means of mitigating the risk of chokes:

“Another approach to reduce discards and chokes is to modify fishing behaviour … through changing the fishing ground or the timing of the fishery to avoid unwanted bycatch. Closures can be on a permanent or temporary basis and can prevent all or certain types of fishing … [They can be] implemented either by command, i.e. by governments, or a self-governance approach i.e. by the industry. The most successful is the self-governance approach, which involves the fishers reporting their catch in real-time and if it contains large amounts of bycatch or undersized fish.”80

53.Allan Gibb endorsed this approach:

“Personally, I am very supportive of the real-time notification that is made available and is transparent to the wider industry. People can avoid an area if need be, even for a couple of weeks; or if they go somewhere and catch a lot of fish that everybody is struggling with, everybody knows, so, as well as that boat moving away, nobody else goes there without having to regulate for it. It will be a voluntary exchange of information.”81

54.Mike Park told us this was already being used to good effect:

“We are engaging in Scotland in real-time reporting of everything we catch to try to illuminate hotspots of catches. If there is a hotspot of cod or hake and we make people aware of it, they can avoid it, and by default that helps with the problem.”82

55.The South East Fishermen’s Protection Association, however, noted that “inshore vessels (under 15m in length) will not have the luxury of simply moving fishing grounds to avoid choke species”.83 Jeremy Percy agreed:

“I have skippered boats up to 30 metres in length. You can say, ‘Okay, boys; let’s steam away for 12 hours from those fish and try to find something else’. The under-10 guys are enormously limited in their range; they cannot simply steam away to try to find another area.”84

56.Technology increasingly makes it possible for fishers and the authorities to share information on their catches in real time. This presents an opportunity to reduce unwanted catches and chokes.

57.We strongly encourage Government and industry to work together to create an effective, comprehensive system for real time notifications that is useful to, and trusted by, fishers.

Can better quota management help?

58.Chokes occur when a vessel (or Producer Organisation or Member State) runs out of quota for a particular fish stock. But as Hazel Curtis explained, there are ways to obtain more quota:

“Quota units, and the right to catch a tonnage of fish in a calendar year, can be moved among vessels, either within the same producer organisation or between different producer organisations. There are international swaps, and leasing of quota is sometimes done in exchange for money, but internationally it is typically done by swapping quota for quota, so there is a kind of barter system of quota in one stock for quota in another.”85

59.The Coastal Producer Organisation estimated “that the retail value of quota traded is over £300m annually, approximately one third of the total value of the entire quota … We estimate that over 55% of traded tonnage is through international swaps and over 40% through domestic swaps.”86 Barrie Deas agreed that “very large tonnages of unutilised quota are swapped in return for quota that is more useful”.87 But, he continued: “Whether it is sufficient to address the choke issue is the $100,000 question.”88

60.Hazel Curtis identified significant benefits in the opportunity to trade quota:

“In our modelling work, we looked at what would happen if people had only the quota they were allocated at the start of the year versus the quota they ended the last year with, after all the trading and international swaps. That can make a really big difference to the degree of choke. In some sea areas and for some vessel types, it would make the difference between being able to fish for maybe only 60% of the days at sea they had last year and, after swaps and moving quota around, fishing for 98% of last year’s days at sea.”89

61.Samuel Stone thought the process of trading quota was too complex: “In many cases quota is available, but it is not getting to the places where it is needed because of complications with domestic and international trading.”90 Barrie Deas agreed: “There is a liquidity problem; the signs are that fisheries managers may be reluctant, in the context of the landing obligation, to swap away quota that they might need for themselves to avoid a choke situation.”91

62.Hazel Curtis noted that “there is no mechanism at the moment to oblige anybody to move quota around. It is a commercial transaction.”92 Barrie Deas told us: “Whether there could be more understanding between Member States about the need to move quota around is something that has been put to the regional groupings of Member States. They have decided not to do anything at this stage but to see what the level of uptakes is early in the new year.”93

63.In relation to moving quota within the UK, Nigel Gooding, Deputy Director for EU fisheries policy and negotiations at Defra, told us:

“We have worked very closely with Producer Organisations over the past year to encourage swapping—for example, where quota in one part of the UK is needed in another part of the UK. We have been encouraging a spirit of co-operation within Producer Organisations to increase the movement and liquidity of fish around the UK. That has been accepted very well. They are joined together by a code of conduct and a memorandum of understanding to try to develop that for the future, particularly to address some of the choke risks in 2019.”94

64.Swapping and leasing quota between vessels, between Producer Organisations and between Member States is already a well-established practice and has the potential to mitigate some of the choke risks posed by the landing obligation.

65.There is no requirement, however, to move quota to where it is needed. It is therefore entirely possible that vessels will be choked and forced to stop fishing when sufficient quota exists, either elsewhere in the UK or elsewhere in the EU, that would have allowed them to continue. Fishers’ livelihoods should not be threatened in this way.

66.We urge the Government to work with the devolved administrations to put formal mechanisms in place to avoid vessels choking where there is sufficient quota available elsewhere in the UK, and to make the case to the European Commission for a similar mechanism at EU level.

67.Work to address this known risk could have been undertaken during the four-year phasing-in of the landing obligation. It is disappointing that this opportunity has been wasted.

Quota management for the under ten metre fleet

68.Representatives of the under ten metre fleet identified swapping or leasing quota to reduce choke risks as a particular challenge. Jim Pettipher, Chief Executive Officer of the Coastal Producer Organisation, explained:

“The under-10s across the country—80% of the fleet—do not hold quota; they fish against a monthly allocation that is handed out to them by the MMO [Marine Management Organisation]. They are on non-sector licences … If you have 100 kilos of cod and you catch 110 kilos, and if you are an over-10 in membership of one of the other POs [Producer Organisations], you can either cross-book it to another boat within the PO or retrospectively lease, as it is called, so when you get back to port … Non-sector boats, which are all of the under-10s and a small number of over-10s … cannot do that. A condition of their licence is that, before they go to sea, they must have in place all the quota they might need.”95

69.The same group of witnesses also expressed concern that having a monthly allocation of quota from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), rather than being able to manage their own quota allocation throughout the year, increased the risk of chokes. Plymouth fisher Graeme Searle told us:

“The monthly quota system implemented by the MMO does not work. In the winter, we can catch a lot of pollock and we never catch it for the rest of the year … We have been explaining since 2013 that we need to catch pollock earlier in the year because there is none at the end of the year; it is seasonal. They have taken no notice whatever.”96

He told us that “at the end of last year, 167 tonnes of pollock were left over”, because it had not been allocated to fishers during the pollock season.97

70.The Coastal Producer Organisation told us they wanted to be given the same abilities as other Producer Organisations to manage quota on behalf of their members, including the ability to cross-book and retrospectively lease quota.98 In response, Michael Coyle, from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), said:

“The key issue is that the Coastal Producer Organisation does not represent all the under-10 fishermen … We are not at a stage at the moment where they could manage the whole of the non-sector quota, but they could manage their own quota holdings. We are working very closely with people from the Coastal Producer Organisation to see what we can do to help them embed their Producer Organisation and get them to a status where they can take more control.”99

71.We are concerned that the under ten metre fleet do not have the same ability to mitigate choke risks as larger vessels that are members of Producer Organisations, because of the way quota is allocated and the restrictions on cross-booking and retrospective leasing. We are disappointed that the phased introduction of the landing obligation was not used as an opportunity to resolve this imbalance. We urge the Government to address it as a matter of urgency, to ensure under ten metre fleet vessels have the same quota flexibilities as the rest of the fleet.

Can exemptions and flexibilities help?

72.As highlighted in Box 2, the Regulation that introduced the landing obligation included a number of exemptions and flexibilities that could help mitigate the risk of chokes. In addition, DiscardLess told us that “policy changes have emerged that were not originally foreseen in the CFP [Common Fisheries Policy] such as the removal of some TACs [total allowable catches] … or changes to the prohibited species list”.100

73.Witnesses disagreed over the extent to which exemptions should be used. The NFFO, for example, said that “exemptions from the obligation to land are welcome and necessary for a workable policy”,101 and the South East Fishermen’s Protection Association told us: “Certain species [are] … exempt from this discard ban due to high survivability rates. This is quite right and should be extended to include any specie with a significant survival rate.”102

74.Conservation organisations, on the other hand, expressed concern about exemptions. WWF found that in many areas the number of exemptions “increased by 300% between 2017 and 2019”.103 A joint position paper produced by seven conservation organisations in November 2018 stated that requests for exemptions “fail to address the root causes of the problem, or simply mask overfishing or discarding”, describing them as attempts to avoid “implementing the requirements of the [Common Fisheries Policy]”.104

75.The Wildlife Trusts raised particular concerns over proposals to remove total allowable catch limits from some stocks in order to exempt them from the landing obligation. They were “strongly opposed to proposals that catch limits be removed. Setting catch limits is the main, and most effective, management tool for ensuring sustainable harvesting.”105

76.The landing obligation’s interspecies flexibility allows quota of one stock to be used to cover the catch of another stock. Samuel Stone described this exemption as “a bit foggy”106 and Julian Roberts, Head of Future Fisheries at the MMO, described it as “a blank sheet of paper” that could challenge the system of setting catch limits.107

77.The Minister acknowledged the difficulty of balancing the health of fish stocks with the economic risk that chokes pose to the fishing industry:

“There is always pressure from some Member States, although not from the UK, to deviate from the science for what they would call socioeconomic reasons … There will be something more legitimate this time, because [of] the risk of choke … If the only answer is to make a more generous by-catch provision on those stocks, or even consider in some cases adding them to the prohibited list, we would have to consider it, to make the obligation work.”108

78.The more species that are exempt from the landing obligation, the fewer problems it will cause fishers. Where a proposed exemption can be supported by scientific evidence (such as a where a species is found to survive discarding well) this is to be welcomed. We are concerned, however, at the number of exemptions being granted, which may undermine the objectives of the landing obligation.

79.Adhering to catch limits that have been set in line with scientific advice is a key mechanism to maintain healthy fish stocks. We would be deeply concerned if the challenges of implementing the landing obligation resulted in the removal of total allowable catch limits or the routine use of ‘interspecies flexibility’ to count the catch of one species against the quota of another.

52 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (IEL0003)

53 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (IEL0003)

55 Written evidence from skipper David Stevens (IEL0001)

58 Written evidence from South East Fishermens Protection Association (IEL0005)

59 Written evidence from skipper David Stevens (IEL0001)

60 Written evidence from the Coastal Producer Organisation (IEL0006)

63 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (IEL0003)

67 Written evidence from Charalambides et al (IEL0011)

68 Written evidence from H2020 DiscardLess (IEL0014)

69 Ibid.

70 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (IEL0003)

71 Written evidence from South East Fishermens Protection Association (IEL0005)

73 Written evidence from skipper David Stevens (IEL0001)

79 Written evidence from Mr Grant Course (IEL0004)

80 Written evidence from Charalambides et al (IEL0011)

83 Written evidence from South East Fishermen’s Protection Association (IEL0007)

86 Written evidence from the Coastal Producer Organisation (IEL0008)

88 Ibid.

97 Ibid.

100 Written evidence from H2020 DiscardLess (IEL0014)

101 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (IEL0003)

102 Written evidence from South East Fishermen’s Protection Association (IEL0007)

103 WWF, Evaluating Europe’s course to sustainable fisheries by 2020 (December 2018): [accessed 24 December 2018]

104 ClientEarth et al, Recovering fish stocks

105 Written evidence from the Wildlife Trusts (IEL0002)

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