- 11 May 2021
Attendees and apologies
- Aoife Ann Martin, Seafish
- Alan Coghill, Orkney PO
- Simon Collins, Shetland
- Anne Birnie, NESFO
- Paul Macdonald, SFO
- Kevin McDonell, SAFPO
- Clara Johnston, Marine Conservation Society
- Elspeth Macdonald, SFF
- Kara Brydson, FIS
- Elena Balestri, SFF
- David Anderson, AFPO
- Mark Dougal, PJJ
- Leslie Tait, Shetland
- Robert Stevenson, Lunar FPO
- Mike Park, SWFPA
- Helen McLachlan, WWF
- Fiona Matheson, Orkney PO
- Kenny Coull, SWFPA
- Sally Bradshaw, DEFRA
- James Brown, DEFRA
Marine Scotland staff:
- Allan Gibb (Chair), Deputy Director of Sea Fisheries
- Jane MacPherson, Head of Catching Policy and Future Fisheries Management
- Jim Drewery, Marine Scotland Science
- Coby Needle, Chief Fisheries Advisor for Scotland
- Kerrie Campbell, Head of International Fisheries, Demersal Stocks
- Sebastien Delemarre, Policy Manager, International Negotiations
- Gordon Hart, Head of Access and Control
- Duncan MacGregor, Head of Coastal Operations
- Nicol Strang, Business Manager, MS Compliance
- Gregor McKenzie, Technical Assurance Lead, MS Compliance
- William Harris, Senior Fishery Officer, MS Compliance
- Michael Crowe, Fishery Officer, MS Compliance
- David Hill, Policy Officer, Catching Policy Team
- Elaine Whyte, CFA/CIFA
Items and actions
The chair welcomed everyone to the meeting and outlined the meeting etiquette for raising points of discussion given the meeting format. The primary aim of this meeting was to discuss North Sea cod, but would also cover AOB if needed.
Prior to the meeting a number of documents were shared with attendees, including the draft TQR proposals which were being progressed at EU level. The chair confirmed that the TQR amendment has now been agreed at Council – a link was sent round attendees prior to the meeting. Comments and questions were invited in advance. These were of a similar theme, which the chair proceeded to address.
State of the stock
On the state of the stock, attendees were aware of the Science / Industry meeting held on 3rd July. ICES advice was recommending a 16.5% cut in NS cod TAC for 2021. In part this related to the advice last year not being implemented in full. The change in the advice is +7.8% which does indicate that the stock status may be improving. However, the stock is still suffering the effects of the historically low 2018 year class and the case for action is still very much there.
For additional context, the proposed 16.5% TAC cut should lead to an increase in SSB of 44%, while a rollover TAC should lead to a 40% increase in SSB.
Impact of COVID-19
Addressing COVID-19 and the possible impact on effort, the latest update from MS analysts indicates that, for cod, quota uptake is very similar to what it was in 2019. While uptake has significantly decreased for other stocks. The fact that cod uptake remains high, means that it would be difficult to argue that cod advice should be modified to account for impacts of the lockdown. The chair noted that some may argue that less effort during the pandemic may result in less mortality, but this is likely to be challenged in international meetings (particularly as the landing obligation remains in place). The chair did confirm that Marine Scotland would continue to keep a very close eye on this as we head into end year negotiations.
Statement in 2020 TQR
The chair confirmed that a key piece of work from last year was the statement in the TQR and the commitment by the Scottish Government to review and analyse the distribution of cod stocks. The chair confirmed that MS scientists have been asked to consider why cod seems abundant in the northern North Sea but not in the southern North Sea and whether the southern component is driving down the northern part. Scientists have been asked to better understand this and how it impacts on the model. The chair noted that this is a different question to whether there should be different TACs for different TAC areas – that’s a longer piece of work. The chair confirmed that MS is looking to have this initial work completed by end year, so that we can use it alongside the cod advice.
Coby Needle confirmed that MSS undertook some quick analysis on the back of the issue being raised strongly at the end of last year. This quick analysis showed that the northern area is probably around SSB average, but the southern stock is very much at the bottom. The southern stock has declined very rapidly. MSS are keen to work in particular with ICES to think about how to incorporate this thinking into the main stock assessment (which will be better than doing a unilateral piece of work in the UK).
Coby confirmed that one of the hypothesis being looked at is that there are three distinct substocks of cod (southern, north-western, north-eastern), but the ICES working group will need to consider evidence and analyses from all participants. Meeting is planned for early August and will report in good time for the start of the benchmark meeting in November. This will conclude in February 2021, and form the basis of the advice given in June 2021 for fishing in 2022. As a longer term goal we may wish to consider 3 different TACs if there are three different stocks. The chair confirmed that it is important not to pre-empt this work
Addressing the EU consultation process, the chair reminded the group that several positive discussions and agreements at FMAC had been shared with EU counterparts, but these appear not to have been considering when proposals have been issued. This is one of the immediate and short term consequences of leaving the EU at the end of January 2020. The lack of engagement from the EU during the ongoing transition period was surprising, but during the transition we remain bound by EU laws and are required to take action where necessary.
Turning to STECF, the wording of TQR has changed and now reads:
“Vessels are subject to a national cod avoidance plan to sustain cod catches in line with the fishing mortality corresponding to the fishing opportunities set, based on scientific advice levels, through spatial or technical measures, or a combination thereof; such plans should be assessed no later than two months following implementation, by STECF in the case of Member States, and by their relevant national scientific body for third countries and where deemed necessary, further revised if such assessments consider that the objective of the plan will not be met”.
Importantly, the revised wording now focussed on a national plan. Were FMAC to agree to a national plan, the chair confirmed that Marine Scotland Science would assess this in the first instance, thereafter through UK counterparts and then on to STECF. The chair was conscious that there had been no market sampling or observers present on vessels for the last three months. While this was in the process of resuming, there was no new data on discards – though with adherence to the landing obligation, there shouldn’t be any.
On wider UK engagement, the chair confirmed that MS continues to actively engage with DEFRA around cod measures. MS will be encouraging Defra to consider what measures they could apply in English waters to help the cod stock – this will be particularly needed if the ICES work on the stock structures indicates a separate southern component which is in a much worse state than the northern component.
Addressing legal concerns, the chair indicated there had been FMAC questions about what legal vehicle we might use for any cod measures in 2021 and how we would ‘revoke’ the EU measures. MS is in the process of seeking legal advice on what happens with the TQR after 31 December 2020, and how we would implement our own management measures in 2021 which would be on a legal footing and would therefore apply to all vessels fishing in our waters. It is MS intention to put in place arrangements so that we can deliver equivalence from the end of transition (if not before). The chair confirmed that officials are still working out the detail, but it’s likely that we would use the powers within the UK Fisheries Bill to do this, possibly also with a Scottish Statutory instrument.
Although in theory the TQR is only applicable for the year in which the TACs apply, it doesn’t automatically revoke at the end of the year. The process is normally that the Commission replaces the TQR on a yearly basis, so once a new TQR takes effect the old one ceases to apply. This means that, in legal terms, the 2020 TQR will rollover into UK law at the end of December and will continue to apply in 2021 unless we take steps to revoke and replace it. SG lawyers were also looking in to how we can introduce our own cod measures from 1 January 2021 so that they apply to all vessels fishing in our waters to ensure equivalence. The chair noted that it would be politically very difficult to revoke EU cod measures if we didn’t have something to immediately replace them with.
The chair concluded this section by reminding FMAC of the positive stance taken on cod previously, with a real sense of wanting to display leadership. Whilst it was understood that there are immediate concerns around equivalence in the short term, it is hoped that we can continue to show leadership by considering what we want in place from 1 January 2021, and working back from there to demonstrate our commitment to also applying measures for the remainder of 2020 as well if possible.
Discussion and follow up
Simon Collins thanked the chair for these updates, adding that they would want to see the science before decisions were made. He noted that when relaxing rules, there needed to be stringent scientific advice supporting that decision; not so when strengthening rules. Turning to the purpose of today’s meeting, Simon wanted to know what FMAC was being asked to do today. He noted that it was disturbing that we were responding to the Commission rather than doing the right thing by cod, adding it was unclear why STECF was continuing to have involvement in these discussions.
The chair clarified that we were attempting to reengage the work carried out previously in FMAC to agree sensible and practice measures for the cod stock. The Commission went their own way, giving us the option of adhering to a raft of compulsory gear measures, or developing our own national cod plan. While the TQR gear measures were not attractive, while we remain in transition, we are bound by EU rules. The chair remained focussed on developing policy for 2021, then considering anything which could be applied in 2020.
Mike Park supported Simon’s points, adding that the period between now and the end of transition in 2021 should be used to piece together sensible measures. Cod shouldn’t be looked at in isolation, and other species needed to be considered also. Level playing field remained a key component and was the basis for previous agreements on this subject. He added that in discussions with the Danish FA, they had agreed to comply with measures we implemented, e.g. closures. He also added that the issue of 5% in the French saithe fishery is an ongoing problem.
The chair felt that we were in agreement on these points. We would need to develop something that we would be happy to apply from 2021 and going forward. If the science were to change, we can adjust and roll back as needed. Without a plan in place, we will not be able to seek equivalence on any issue. Referring to the positive progress made previously by FMAC, it would be beneficial if this could be built on to be in place for 2021; with consideration also given to what elements could also be applied this year to comply with the TQR amendment.
EU TQR and Norway measures
Jane Macpherson updated the group on EU proposals, noting that FMAC had seen the draft TQR measures circulated last week. These had been updated and were now in law.
The EU measures establish a ‘precautionary area’ in the Northern part of the North Sea, which will ban all fishing (with some exceptions) unless management measures are in place. Member States are provided with a number of options which they can use to enable their fleets to access and continue fishing within the precautionary area:
- being involved in a fishery that has a less than 5% bycatch of cod [this is defined as ‘the percentage of cod catches does not exceed 5% of the total catches per fishing trip; vessels with cod catches that have not exceeded 5% of their total catches in the period 2017-19 are presumed to comply with this criterion], or
- a regulated and highly selective bottom trawl or seine is used, which results, according to a scientific study, in at least a 30 % reduction of cod catches compared to vessels fishing with the baseline mesh size for towed gears
- using prescribed highly selective gear, or
- vessels are subject to a national cod avoidance plan to sustain cod catches in line with the fishing mortality corresponding to the fishing opportunities set, based on scientific advice levels, through spatial or technical measures, or a combination thereof (with plans assessed by STECF)
It was noted that development of a national cod avoidance plan seems the most achievable goal to adhere to these measures.
Jane noted that there are some issues with the proposed approach that MS have communicated to the UK and the Commission:
- the access criteria are open to interpretation and are left to a large extent to Member State discretion. Whilst it is useful to provide vessels with a menu of options to choose from, the provisions mean that some vessels could continue as before without having to change their behaviours. Some Member States are likely to use this flexibility to avoid having to do anything, which will seriously undermine recovery efforts
- by using different options rather than a mandatory approach, there will be no level playing field in place, meaning that different fleets will be following different rules whilst fishing alongside each other. This was a key criteria when approaching the cod management talks
- there is no exemption in terms of inshore grounds to take account of the vulnerability of the inshore fleet and rural communities
Jane confirmed that MS has not yet had sight on new Norway measures, though these appear to be focussed on the continued use of existing measures such as move on and RTCs, with the addition of precautionary areas being applied should catches breach certain thresholds for particular species / sizes.
FMAC proposals – January 2020
Jane confirmed that before the meeting, a summary of FMAC’s position on several subjects had been circulated. These proposals can be summarised as follows:
- real time closures
- pre-defining ‘fish’ and ‘Nephrops’ areas in the North Sea, and requiring any vessel fishing outwith the Fladens area to use a minimum gear size of 120mm in what would be classed as the ‘fish’ area (this is consistent with the new Tech Con regulations but offers a more nuanced approach to the cod issue)
- MS think this identification of the fish and mud areas is key to our approach
- within the ‘fish’ area, and in addition to RTCs, there would be an option for a lower trigger level which could be used to establish a precautionary area if the level of cod abundance reached a certain level. This trigger level would be lower than RTCs and wouldn’t result in an area closure. Instead it would require the vessel to do something additional in order to continue fishing. MS anticipated this would be focussed on increased selectivity
- spawning closures (in line with those already in place)
- keeping options open in relation to fixed closed areas, as per suggestion at previous FMAC meeting
The chair added that the inshore element also needed to be considered. There had been challenges previously on 120mm net sizes, but that this was a more nuanced approach – fishers can’t fish for prawns if not on mud. Feedback had been received that 100mm had been used outwith mud areas, which would be helpful to address. Trials are currently taking place on west coast of Scotland to investigate real time reporting in practice.
Development of cod measures
The chair confirmed that a basic agreement was desired to develop a national cod plan to take effect from 1st January 2021, with equivalence; and with consideration of existing EU legal obligations which parts could be introduced for the remainder of 2020. Measures implemented in 2020 would only apply to Scottish and UK vessels.
Leslie Tait reminded the group of the arguments from Shetland. He was in favour of spawning closures (with concerns on the size of closures), but had deep concerns about these issues. When looking at gears, this would result in a loss of up to 25% monkfish and megrim, which made it difficult to accept the proposal with enthusiasm.
The chair replied that doing nothing wasn’t an option, but agreed that the gears in the TQR do cause problems.
Jim Drewery indicated that more work on the separator panel for the whitefish fleet might be useful. The chair noted the potential of this measure, but that it needed to be explored further and understood.
Mike Park observed that, rather than minor adjustments to practices on a rolling year by year basis, major adjustments need to be implemented to look at a holistic multi-annual response to protect the juveniles and remove the stock from a constant boom and bust situation.
The chair confirmed that this was to be our future catching policy (FCP) contained in the FFM strategy. Changing technical measures and other legislation would be much more quicker without a reliance on amending EU legislation.
James Anderson agreed that, as fishers, they would need to remain observant so as to protect future economics of the industry. He asked if there was a path to resume effort limitation for the duration of 2020.
The chair responded that he was aware that certain measures would be logistically difficult to implement in 2020. MS remained open to effort limitations, but were not in a space to recommend imposition of effort if there are divisions among the fleet. One reason covid effort measures didn’t continue was because POs were not in agreement. It would be for SAFPO to consider if the national cod plan could be effort focussed in the short term, while longer term measures are considered.
Elspeth MacDonald asked if there would be a risk if the fisheries bill wouldn’t come in to law with enough time to give equivalence by 1 January 2021, in which case would the TQR apply.
The chair confirmed that it was not impossible that the TQR could apply in January 2021. For the UK’s first action as a Coastal State to revoke the TQR without an alternative being in place was not desirable – hence the need for a plan. He also noted that in the event ‘enough’ RTCs were not implement, this couldn’t really be legislated for.
Conclusions and next steps
After a short reflection break, the chair resumed, taking silence as an agreement, that we would consider via correspondence, elements which may constitute a national cod plan. Adjustments for physical distancing would also be considered.
Helen McLachlan agreed in principal this this proposal sounded good, but that it was important to do the best job to aid stock recovery. Proposals would need to be robust enough to work with sufficient evidence. The chair noted that quantifying measures remains very difficult, adding that historical measures would be a good place to examine first. While ideally there would be a UK plan for 2020, ultimately management measures in Scottish waters would be for the Scottish Government, while working closely with UK colleagues.
Alan Coghill raised a few questions. Owing to connection issues, this was not received, but comments are detailed below:
The comments made by Mike Park re the previous cod measures are only partially correct, yes there was an element of kneejerk reaction initially but they were refined and proven to work over the period. We should therefore have the basis for our National plan in RTC's plus juvenile closures together with the gear options we proved to work in reducing the catches of small cod which we are agreed is a principal target in the present situation.(Incidentally this is not new, our vessels were reporting and taking measures to avoid small cod about this time last year) These measures are all proven and tested and should form the basis of our plan and if needed we could look at moving-on or the system being trialled in the West of Scotland - the real time reporting scheme. The mud proposal for prawn vessels would also contribute to the overall positive proposals.
With regard to the separator trials referred to at one point, one of our vessels was involved in trials but it was found to be impractical for vessels of this size in the Northern North Sea and Seafish did not continue with the trial. It is also untrue to claim that the 8 day tie up was discontinued because the PO's lacked agreement, in fact the onshore sector i,e. the processors and some agents exerted pressure on the PO's to lift the scheme to allow more fish to be made available as they started up again from lockdown.
My final point is that much political capital has been made both in an EU and UK context of the remote and fragile nature of the Islands both socially and economically and this situation obviously fits that position. The imposition of the requirements in the TQR will prevent vessels from both Orkney and Shetland from carrying out their alternative and legitimate fisheries within the proposed area when attempting to avoid cod.
Regarding next steps, the chair assured the group that they would not be presented with a formal proposal at this stage, rather a document about what could constitute a national plan, with discussion around the areas found to be most challenging, then reconvening to go through in detail. Concerning timeframes our response would be limited as it will be overtaken by the Future Catching Policy. Again, we can be much quicker at making adjustments to the rules as seen fit than in the EU.
To confirm, the group was in broad agreement that an outline for what might constitute a cod plan would be circulated based on previous discussions. This would be followed up by correspondence thereafter.
Leslie Tait noted that the current physical distancing rules made it challenging to get feedback from members. The chair acknowledged this but commented that as restrictions were now starting to ease, adapting to new ways of working would be desirable
As a reminder, the international team will be in touch with organisations shortly about plans for engagement in the run up to the negotiations. The team will be first of all seeking views on how best to engage remotely. Level of engagement will not diminish on previous years, but will just be done in a different way.
Helen McLachlan noted that while the group had agreed to consider what a national plan may look like for 2021, but were there any measures in consideration for 2020 with relation to small cod. The chair confirmed SAFPO was being encouraged to consider effort reduction again, but MS was not in a position to impose this measure. If SAFPO are in agreement, then happy to have that conversation. A quick response may be possible concerning problems on the mud area, but would not be taking a unilateral decision now.
Mike Park added that whilst this focus is on cod the biggest fishery is haddock. We need to ensure that any policy going forward looks at the selectivity criteria across a number of stocks including perhaps looking at square mesh cod ends. The chair responded that without a decent cod stock and TAC in a mixed fishery then will not be able to take full advantage of the haddock opportunities. This is something we will want to look at going forward with relation to the national cod plan.
The chair concluded, thanking the participants for joining and making use of the instant messaging function. As discussed, an outlined paper would be circulated shortly.