6.During our previous inquiry on the landing obligation, we heard that it was “the biggest change to the Common Fisheries Policy since its inception”, and “a very new approach … designed to be a very big change in fisheries management”.
7.When asked in May 2019, however, about the impact of the landing obligation coming fully into force, the Marine Management Organisation’s (MMO’s) Operations Director, Phil Haslam, said: “It was badged as a ‘big bang’ but the bang has been slightly less than expected.” This view was echoed by a number of witnesses, including Jeremy Percy, Executive Director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, who told us: “Very little has changed.”
8.The landing obligation, which to a large extent prohibits the previously common practice of discarding fish at sea, is both a significant change and a significant challenge for the fishing industry. Despite this, the new rules seem to have had little impact since they came into force in full six months ago.
9.In our previous report on the landing obligation we highlighted concerns that full implementation of the landing obligation was likely to result in a number of ‘chokes’. This phenomenon, which is explained in detail in our previous report, occurs when a fisher runs out of quota for one fish stock and then, even though they still have quota for other stocks, cannot continue to fish in that area because they cannot guarantee they will not catch more of the stock for which they have exhausted their quota.
10.When we asked witnesses in November and December 2018 about the likely scale of this problem, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) told us: “Chokes could cause vessels, or fleets, to tie up early in the year, with serious social and economic consequences.” Graham Doswell, a fisher from Eastbourne, stated that fishers would be “tied up within a week or two”, and skipper David Stevens told us: “For our fishery in the Southwest it is expected that the haddock choke … will tie up the fleet within 8 weeks.” The then Fisheries Minister, George Eustice MP, shared these concerns: “Our expectation is that … parts of the fleet could be choked and have to tie up half way through the year.”
11.It appears, however, that the risk of choke has not materialised. Witnesses offered a range of explanations. Barrie Deas, Chief Executive Officer of the NFFO, told us: “A combination of vessels avoiding unwanted catch in one way or another and the mitigation measures that have been taken has meant that up to now we have managed to avoid choke situations.” He continued: “Irish Sea whiting, for example, would have been closed in February had business as usual continued, but the mitigation measures, including the decisions made at the December Council, have definitely had an impact and removed the immediate choke risks.” Deputy Director for fisheries policy and negotiations at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Nigel Gooding, expressed a similar view: “The results of December Council managed to mitigate some of the choke risks that we were fearing.” We discuss the decisions made in the December 2018 meeting of the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council (‘December Council’) in more detail in Chapter 4.
12.Jeremy Percy offered a different perspective:
“I spoke to a number of fishermen before this meeting … One chap said that it was pure luck, and a lack of fish on the ground, that had stopped things going wrong, and the failures of the MMO in dealing with the landing obligation. That mirrors a number of comments.”
13.Given the widespread expectation that the landing obligation would result in vessels having to stop fishing within the first few months of this year, we were surprised to note that there appear to have been no instances of such ‘choke’ to-date.
14.Witnesses cautioned, however, that the problem of choke could still arise later in the year. Barrie Deas told us: “We will have to see; this is May, and you would expect chokes, if they were to arise, to increase in intensity in the second half of the year.” This view was shared by Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, and Phil Haslam.
15.There are some mechanisms in place to enable fishers to obtain more quota, and so to potentially avoid chokes. During our last inquiry Hazel Curtis, Chief Economist at Seafish, told us:
“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. That can make a big difference.”
16.Both Phil Haslam and the Fisheries Minister, Rt Hon Robert Goodwill MP, told us that quota swaps would be key to avoiding chokes later in the year. The Minister, asked if he thought that the choke risk could be avoided, said: “That will depend on the availability of inter- and intracountry swaps and other mitigation measures at our disposal.”
17.We examined the issue of quota swaps in detail in our previous report, flagging the risk that the landing obligation could result in a reluctance to swap, increasing the risk of chokes occurring. Witnesses to this inquiry told us this remained a concern. Bertie Armstrong told us: “It is less fluid than it used to be because, naturally enough, each participating Member State will now start to look after their own responsibility not to be choked rather than swap fish away for commercial reasons.” Barrie Deas and the South West Fish Producers Organisation (SWFPO) agreed. Jeremy Percy highlighted the particular problems for smaller fishing businesses:
“As with any commodity, it is about supply and demand, and … because of the unknowns about what is going to happen, the value of some quotas has already risen and will probably continue to rise dramatically over the year. That being the case, it will shut out those that do not have the financial resources to lease it.”
18.Phil Haslam told us: “I am hearing the same anecdotal evidence that getting hold of quota is more difficult and, if it is at a premium, the price will rise.” He added, however, that “the evidence so far this year is that swaps are relatively typical to other years”.
20.There are concerns, however, that there is a greater reluctance to swap quota this year, causing the value of quota to rise and increasing the risk that it will be unobtainable by those who need it.
21.We therefore restate the recommendation of our previous report that the Government should 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. This should include specific consideration of the constraints experienced by the under ten metre fleet.
22.Fish that are smaller than the minimum conservation reference size agreed by the EU cannot be sold for human consumption. As this makes them less valuable than other fish, fishers would previously have discarded them at sea. With the landing obligation now fully in force, however, fishers should be bringing them ashore (where they can be sold for fish meal, bait, pet food etc).
23.In our previous inquiry we heard concerns that the port infrastructure and supply chains needed to receive, store and sell or dispose of these fish were not in place.
24.In the present inquiry, however, the MMO told us that only 85 tonnes of fish below minimum reference size had been landed in the UK between January and May 2019. By comparison, 293 tonnes were landed in 2018 (when the landing obligation was only partially in force).
25.Some witnesses told us that this was due to changes in fishing practices that allowed fishers to avoid catching the smaller fish. Bertie Armstrong told us: “In the mixed demersal fleet fishing around the northern North Sea and the west coast, we have largely eliminated the catching of small fish. You can do that largely with mesh sizes.” The SWFPO agreed: “Because of the improvements to net geometry and incorporation of selectivity innovations, I am convinced that most fishes that would have been discarded in the past are now selected-out of the nets alive on the seabed.” Pete Bromley, Harbour Master at Sutton Harbour, told us he had seen few undersized fish landed; something he attributed, in part, to the use of more selective fishing gear: “A lot of credit has to go to the fishermen for the efforts they have put in.”
26.ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF, however, raised doubts about this explanation: “Whilst undoubtedly the application of new practices and selective gear developed in recent years will be having a beneficial effect, not all boats have embraced highly selective gear and in any event, we would still expect some small or undersized fish to be landed.”
27.Phil Haslam told us: “The focus of the landing obligation is the reduction of unwanted catch, so actually it could be a signal of success that there are not huge amounts of undersized fish being landed … It could be one measure that selectivity and the like is paying dividends.” But he also told us that it could be because “people are just discarding”. The Minister suggested the latter option was more likely: “I am a little disappointed that … the amount of fish landed that would otherwise have been discarded is actually a very small amount …. I would have expected a much larger figure.” He continued: “The evidence of those quite small quantities does not give me confidence that we are correctly applying the landing obligation.”
28.Phil Haslam told us that “a lack of consistent reporting” meant that “there is no way to cross-check to see if [the quantities of undersized fish landed] … is as it should be”. This echoes the concerns we heard in late 2018, that, because discard data were not routinely captured, it was not known what quantities of fish below minimum conservation reference size were previously being caught but thrown back into the sea and so should now be expected to be landed.
29.ClientEarth have suggested that an EU-wide indicator should be developed “to allow the tracking of selectivity improvements over the years”. They hope that this would encourage improvements in the selectivity of fishing gear, but could also provide evidence of the extent to which selectivity improvements can explain the lack of undersized fish being landed.
30.The landing obligation was expected to result in an increased volume of undersized fish being brought to shore. This has not happened, but it is unclear whether this is due to improvements in fishing gear that allow fishers to avoid catching these fish, or whether fishers are ignoring the landing obligation and continuing to discard them.
31.We welcome the improvement in selective gear technology, and would strongly encourage its continued development and take-up. Given the importance of more selective fishing, the Government and devolved administrations must urgently consider how they can track the extent of selectivity improvements in the UK fleet, including monitoring the sales of selective fishing gear, and work with other Member States to develop an EU-wide indicator.
32.The lack of historic data on discards means the UK has no baseline against which to judge the impact of the landing obligation. The UK Government and devolved administrations should urgently consider how they will improve catch data, to enable them to monitor future progress.
33.The modest impact of the landing obligation to date raises questions about the level of compliance.
34.ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF told us: “Acknowledgement of this continuing practice [of discarding] has been identified by all stakeholders from the fishing industry themselves, to scientists, researchers, eNGOs and independent researchers.” While the SWFPO told us that “compliance with the Discards Landing Obligation is high”, Barrie Deas said: “At this stage, five months into the landing obligation, my assessment would be that it is patchy, it is difficult to know and it is probably uneven.”
35.When we asked Marine Scotland about the extent to which they thought the landing obligation was being complied with, they told us: “We are unable to answer this question as we could only provide an estimate based on the cases of non-compliance identified and anything beyond that would be guesswork.” They told us there had been one detection of non-compliance since the landing obligation came fully into force.
36.Phil Haslam also did not know what the rate of compliance was, describing it as “an emerging picture”. He noted, however, that in England and Wales:
“There have been 93 inspections to date. Within those, there have been 57 issues in terms of the demersal landing obligation—not infringements, but issues that have needed correcting … A lot of it has just been misunderstandings in terms of exemptions, about what should be retained and what can be put back.”
37.The Fisheries Minister mentioned several times that he believed discarding was still taking place. He told us: “I cannot say, hand on heart, that [the landing obligation] is being fully complied with.”
38.Given the important ecological reasons for the introduction of the landing obligation, it is concerning both that the Government believes illegal discarding is still taking place and that it does not know the extent of compliance.
39.The Government and devolved administrations must urgently take steps to put robust mechanisms in place to monitor and enforce compliance. We also urge the Government to seek to persuade the Commission and Member States to agree measures to improve monitoring and compliance across the EU.
6 Oral evidence taken on 28 November 2018 (Session 2017–19), (Barrie Deas)
7 Oral evidence taken on 5 December 2018 (Session 2017–19), (Samuel Stone)
9 Including Jim Pettipher, Chief Executive Officer of the Coastal Producer Organisation, and Pete Bromley, Harbour Master at Sutton Harbour ().
11 European Union Committee, (26th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 276), Chapter 4
12 Written evidence from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations ()
13 Oral evidence taken on 5 December 2018 (Session 2017–19),
14 Written evidence from skipper David Stevens ()
15 Oral evidence taken on 12 December 2018 (Session 2017–19),
23 Oral evidence taken on 28 November 2018 (Session 2017–19),
27 European Union Committee, (26th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 276), paras 58–71
30 Written evidence from the South West Fish Producers Organisation Ltd ()
34 European Union Committee, (26th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 276)
37 Written evidence from the South West Fish Producers Organisation Ltd ()
39 Written evidence from ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF ()
45 Written evidence from ClientEarth ()
46 Written evidence from ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF ()
47 Written evidence from the South West Fish Producers Organisation Ltd ()
49 Written evidence from Marine Scotland ()