The EU fisheries landing obligation: six months on Contents

Chapter 4: The risk of overfishing

An assumption of compliance

62.In order to prevent overfishing, vessels have a maximum quota for different fish stocks that they can land. Quota is allocated to each Member State based on the ‘total allowable catch’ (TAC) agreed for a stock, which is set based on scientific advice on the health of that stock and the maximum level at which it can be fished sustainably.85

63.ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF told us:

“In previous years management authorities would remove the amount that they considered would be discarded … On that basis, if it was estimated that the discard rate for a species was 20% then the fleet would be allocated 80% of the recommended quota to land (with the assumption that the other 20% would be discarded).”86

Because, under the landing obligation, all fish should now be landed, additional quota has been granted to take account of the fish that would previously been discarded.

64.ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF expressed their concern about this:

“Basing such adjustments (quota uplift or ‘top-ups’) on an assumption of perfect compliance (which is unlikely) runs the risk of … overfishing. This is especially the case where catches are not fully monitored … We therefore remain of the view that the UK Government must ensure that any quota uplift made available to UK fleets is only granted to those that can clearly account for that quota, demonstrate compliance with the landing obligation, and that efforts to reduce unwanted catches, such as the application of best practice selectivity and avoidance, are being made wherever possible.”87

65.The issue is further complicated by the fact that, for some stocks, exemptions have been granted that allow fishers to continue to discard some fish (see below, paragraphs 70–71). An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts (PCT) has found that not all catch limits appear to have been adjusted to account for exemptions.88 If this is the case, even if fishers are entirely compliant with the landing obligation, the combination of fish landed and discarded would exceed the maximum level that can be caught without damaging fish stocks.

66.ClientEarth raised similar concerns, telling us that the Regulation “does not specify which deductions have been applied and the information provided by the Commission so far regarding the underlying calculations do not provide an in-depth explanation of the data used”.89

67.Nigel Gooding told us: “If you are allowed to discard some quota under a de minimis exemption, the TAC is reduced accordingly.”90 It was not clear, however, whether total allowable catches (TACs) had been adjusted to account for other types of exemptions, such as ‘high survivability’ (see below, paragraph 71).

68.Limits are set on the amount of each type of fish that fishers can catch, to ensure the health of fish stocks for future years. The EU’s limits are now set on an assumption of 100% compliance with the landing obligation, making the need for an effective mechanism to monitor compliance even more pressing.

69.It is critical that the catch limits set reflect any exemptions that allow for continued discarding, and that information about how limits are calculated is easily, publicly available to allow for sufficient scrutiny. We urge the Government to raise these concerns with the European Commission.


70.The landing obligation applies to “all catches … of species which are subject to catch limits and, in the Mediterranean Sea, also catches of species which are subject to minimum sizes”.91 Non-quota species are exempt, including most commercial shellfish species. Barrie Deas told us that in some fisheries “up to 70% of the catch can be non-quota species and therefore not subject to the landing obligation”.92

71.The EU Fisheries Council agreed a number of additional exemptions to the landing obligation in December 2018. The Regulation allows for exemptions to be granted for species for which scientific evidence demonstrates high survival rates. It also allows for ‘de minimis’ exemptions, where a certain percentage of the catch can be discarded if scientific evidence indicates that increases in selectivity are very difficult to achieve, or to avoid disproportionate costs of handling unwanted catches.93

72.As mentioned in Chapter 2, some witnesses told us that the exemptions agreed in December were the reason that vessels have not, so far, been ‘choked’. Barrie Deas told us that exemptions were necessary for the landing obligation to function, adding that they would “be needed for quite a long time”.94 Bertie Armstrong agreed.95

73.ClientEarth, however, were concerned that “exemptions could diminish the overall objectives of the Landing Obligation”.96 We expressed a similar concern in our previous report.97 Barrie Deas gave an example that appears to bear out this concern: “From memory, North Sea plaice and dab represented something like 75% of the discards in the European fleet … Both of them will continue to be discarded.”98 He explained that “the Commission had removed the TAC for dab and there is high survival exemption for plaice”.99

74.Nigel Gooding told us: “We do not want a huge number of exemptions … We have been very careful, from the UK’s perspective, not to ensure that there are exemptions for absolutely everything and that the standards are kept as high as possible.”100

75.The aim of the landing obligation is to eliminate discarding. Although we recognise that exemptions have helped reduce the risk of choke, we remain concerned that their scale undermines this overriding aim, and we therefore urge the Government to work with other Member States to continually challenge and reduce the use of exemptions.

76.Witnesses raised particular concerns about the agreement at the December Fisheries Council to set catch limits for five stocks for which scientific advice was for a zero catch. Zero catches are recommended when the state of a fish stock is particularly poor. To enable fishers to continue to fish for other species in the same waters as these stocks, however, the European Commission proposed a quota for ‘bycatch’, to allow for the fact that some of the zero catch stock might be caught accidently. Environmental groups argued this would only be acceptable if it was accompanied by a requirement for the fleets in question to have remote electronic monitoring or observers on board,101 but Member States rejected this. WWF described this decision as “unacceptable”.102

77.Member States did agree, however, that ‘bycatch reduction plans’ should be developed. As the PCT explained in its March 2019 report, Ministers “agreed clear timelines for the development of these plans, and that they should include measures to minimise bycatches and ensure that all catches are subject to full catch documentation”.103 These plans were supposed to be submitted to the European Commission by 30 April, but when Nigel Gooding gave evidence on 5 June he told us the joint plan for North Western Waters had been “submitted last week, I think, or at the beginning of this week”.104 He also explained that it would be some time before the plans would be implemented: “They will now go to the European Commission and will be examined by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, which will give their view of the recommendations … If it is approved, it will be adopted as part of the delegated Act and will apply for next year.”105

78.Not surprisingly, concerns have been raised about the time being taken to put these plans in place. ClientEarth told us:

“We are very concerned about the prospect of business continuing as usual in the absence of strong, concrete and immediate measures as part of this bycatch reduction plan, allowing the dire state of these stocks to remain unchanged or even deteriorate further, since the bycatch TACs exceed scientifically advised levels.”106

The PCT stated in their report that “the ‘bycatch TACs’ should only be made available once the evaluated plans are implemented”.107

79.ClientEarth also raised concerns about the robustness of the plans:

“The draft version of the plan we received via the NWWAC [North Western Waters Advisory Council] on 5th April appears to primarily contain references to measures already included in the current discard plan, or agreed as part of the new Technical Measures Framework. A more recent update of this draft plan received through the NWWAC on 15th May contains a limited number of additional measures, most of which remain rather vague and/or are not due to come into force until 2020.”108

80.When we asked Nigel Gooding if the bycatch reduction plans would include a requirement for vessels allocated the bycatch quota to use remote electronic monitoring, he told us: “That is not part of the plans.”109

81.Allocating a small amount of quota to cover accidental bycatch of stocks that would otherwise have a zero catch limit may be a necessary measure. But given the imperative that the catch of these stocks be kept to an absolute minimum, we share the disappointment expressed by some of our witnesses that robust bycatch reduction plans were not in place before the landing obligation came fully into force.

82.The Government should work with other Member States and the European Commission to ensure bycatch reduction plans are implemented as quickly as possible. These plans should include a requirement for remote electronic monitoring and the use of more selective fishing gears on vessels allocated the bycatch quota, to ensure strict compliance with the quota limits and whatever bycatch reduction measures are agreed.

The importance of scientific advice

83.This Committee has consistently stressed the importance of setting total allowable catches in line with scientific advice.110 While there has always been a tension between the ecological imperative to restrain fishing activity to a sustainable level and the short-term economic benefit of allowing the fishing industry to catch as much as possible, the additional risk of ‘choke’ created by the landing obligation could provide a further incentive to exceed the scientifically advised limits.

84.Phil Haslam told us that “the exemptions in place now have been based on pretty rigorous science”,111 a view shared by Marine Scotland.112 Nigel Gooding told us:

“Before any exemption is accepted, it … has to be examined and approved by the EU Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, which is the EU’s science committee. They can reject an exemption if they feel there is not enough science and evidence behind it. They can ask for more evidence, or they can say that the exemption will be allowed for only one year and the Member States then have to build up the evidence. There is quite a rigorous process.”113

85.The Fisheries Minister, however, was clear that he did not believe scientific advice always has to be followed: “The science is important, but we also need to ensure that we have a sustainable industry in coastal resorts.”114 He continued:

“It is a calculated risk, and it is a political decision … during discussions at Fisheries Council in December, in the horse trading that goes on, sometimes compromises have to be struck … You could take the purist position that, acting solely on the scientific advice, you might have to close a large number of fisheries. That would have a devastating effect on the communities supported by that and so sometimes we might have to curb our ambitions slightly.”115

86.This Committee wishes to see fishers and fishing communities flourish. If fishing is permitted above the maximum level that scientific advice states is sustainable, however, the long-term damage to fish stocks could pose a serious threat to the fishing industry.

87.We therefore restate our position that catch limits, and exemptions to the landing obligation, should be set in line with scientific advice and urge the Government to work with other Member States to accelerate progress in this area.

85 For more detail see European Union Committee, Fisheries: Implementation and Enforcement of the Landing Obligation (26th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 276), Box 3.

86 Written evidence from ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF (IEL0026)

87 Written evidence from ClientEarth, the Marine Conservation Society and WWF (IEL0025)

88 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Analysis of Fisheries Council agreement on fishing opportunities in the north-east Atlantic for 2019 (March 2019): [accessed 12 June 2019]

89 Written evidence from ClientEarth (IEL0027)

91 Council Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy (OJ L 354/22, 28 December 2013)

93 Council Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy (OJ L 354/22, 28 December 2013)

95 Ibid.

96 Written evidence from ClientEarth (IEL0027)

97 European Union Committee, Fisheries: Implementation and Enforcement of the Landing Obligation (26th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 276), para 78

99 Ibid.

101 See, for example, written evidence from the World Wildlife Fund (IEL0022) and the joint NGO position paper Recovering fish stocks and fully implementing the Landing Obligation: Managing fishing mortality to meet CFP objectives: [accessed 15 June 2019].

102 Written evidence from the World Wildlife Fund (IEL0022)

103 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Analysis of Fisheries Council agreement on fishing opportunities in the north-east Atlantic for 2019 (March 2019): [accessed 12 June 2019]

105 Ibid.

106 Written evidence from ClientEarth (IEL0027)

107 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Analysis of Fisheries Council agreement on fishing opportunities in the north-east Atlantic for 2019 (March 2019): [accessed 12 June 2019]

108 Written evidence from ClientEarth (IEL0027)

110 See, for example, the Committee’s scrutiny of the EU Commission’s Proposal for a Regulation on the Fishing Opportunities for 2019:

112 Written evidence from Marine Scotland (IEL0023)

114 Ibid.

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