Scotland's rich and diverse seas have given rise to a significant number of domestic and international fishing vessels operating around the coast of Scotland, focussed on harvesting a healthy, nutritious source of food for both domestic and international markets, and playing a key economic and social role in rural and island communities.
A diverse fishing industry exists, harvesting a wide variety of species and using a variety of fishing methods – this means that fisheries management can be complex and challenging and it is often the case that management solutions need to be tailored to take account of the varied situation in which fishers operate.
As fisheries managers, we must ensure that fishing activity within Scottish waters is operating sustainably and responsibly, in a way that minimises negative environmental impacts and which secures our natural resources for generations to come.
There are a number of rules and regulations that are already in place to support responsible and sustainable fisheries management but we need to continue to progress our work in this area to further minimise environmental and ecological damage.
The introduction of the landing obligation, as part of the European Union's (EU) Common Fisheries Policy and now forming part of UK retained EU law, intended to deliver a step change in tackling discarding of unwanted fish from fishing vessels with a focus on reducing waste, protecting fish stocks and increasing accountability. Although the landing obligation has resulted in a reduction of such discards taking place, the very nature of the diverse fishing industry means implementation has been complex, particularly for those operating in mixed fisheries (areas of water where it is likely more than one species of fish will be caught at a time). Enforcing the landing obligation in mixed fisheries is operationally difficult and it remains an issue that requires focussed and sustained activity to address accountability, increase transparency and improve confidence that everything that is being caught is being accounted for. This is needed to ensure sustainable fisheries management and improved ecological outcomes.
Additionally, across the industry bycatch and entanglements of non-fish species, including cetaceans, seals and seabirds, can also occur and this also needs to be appropriately addressed. The rules and regulations we have in place to manage fishing activity need to ensure that such catch is minimised and, where possible, eliminated.
In order to address such issues, the Scottish Government in collaboration with the Fisheries Management and Conservation (FMAC) group, developed a consultation on Scotland's Future Catching Policy (FCP). This is a key component of the Scottish Government's Fisheries Management Strategy and is a key policy underpinning our wider approach to sustainable fishing in Scotland. It will also play an important role in wider marine spatial management and planning as part of a package of measures including fisheries management measures in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Through this consultation the Scottish Government sought views on a variety of proposals on the development and implementation of additional technical (e.g. fishing net mesh sizes) and spatial (e.g. seasonal closures) fisheries management measures which seek to:
- Ensure a co-management approach providing a clear structure to engage stakeholders in improving the rules associated with reducing unwanted catch of fish and other species and, in improving the selectivity of the different fleet segments, for example, by introducing more selective gear or closures designed to protect spawning fish stocks.
- Support the aims of the landing obligation by placing accountability, the health of fish stocks and the reduction of unnecessary waste at its heart.
- Respond to the challenges associated with discarding by introducing a suite of measures tailored to consider the varied fleet segments rather than a one size fits all approach.
- Better regulate activity at sea in order to support sustainable fishing practices, increased accountability and transparency for fishers, Government and members of the public.
The FCP has co-management at its centre, placing a significant emphasis on working with fishers and others to develop pragmatic management measures designed to reduce discarding and bycatch.
The consultation also sought views on specific management measures for pots and creels and the gill net and long line fleet segments respectively.
1.1 Scope of consultation
The FCP consultation ran from 15 March to 7 June 2022. The consultation sought input on a number of key areas such as:
- Putting in place additional technical (e.g. gear selectivity) and spatial (e.g. area closures to protect spawning fish) measures, designed to reduce unwanted catch of fish and bycatch of sensitive marine species where these are required.
- Taking a segment-by-segment approach to discard rules / exemptions, which are currently set out under the landing obligation (which requires that all fish subject to quota limits are landed unless subject to an exemption). Rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach, this would allow us to adjust and simplify existing exemptions and discard rules to account for variations between fleet segments, whilst ensuring the principles of reducing waste and increasing accountability continue to be met.
- Consideration of additional management measures for the static fishing fleet in order to address issues with displacement that can limit the ability of other vessels to avoid unwanted catch and, reduce gear conflict. The consultation also included questions on some inshore proposals, including creel limits.
- A co-management approach to policy making whereby stakeholders are intrinsic to the development of policies and the decision-making process. This process centres around direct engagement with stakeholders through the FMAC group to ensure decisions are, where possible, made in a collaborative manner.
The Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/1627) require the Scottish Ministers when exercising certain functions to take the necessary measures to achieve or maintain good environmental status (GES) in UK waters. The UK Marine Strategy Parts 1-3 (UKMS) is a series of strategy documents published in compliance with Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 to set out the UK's framework for assessing, monitoring and taking action to achieve GES. It is a key pillar of marine policy in the UK.
A key factor in furthering our progress towards achieving GES will be the application of the fisheries objectives within the Fisheries Act 2020. This is the fundamental piece of legislation which will facilitate achieving GES for Descriptors 1 and 4 for fish in UK seas and other relevant descriptors for seals, birds and cetaceans in the UK MS Part Three (Programme of Measures). The Joint Fisheries Statement sets out how we will achieve the fisheries objectives set out in the Fisheries Act 2020 and contribute to the delivery of GES.
The FCP, in line with supporting commitments made in Section 4.2.8 of the Joint Fisheries Statement, will assist the Scottish Government in delivering the sustainability objective; the bycatch objective; the ecosystem objective, specifically in relation to minimising incidental catches of sensitive species; and, the scientific evidence objective.
The FCP will deliver on the above objectives by focusing on the reduction of discarding of unwanted catch via a suite of technical and spatial selectivity measures. Further, the FCP will not only reduce instances of unwanted catch below Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS), but seek to reduce accidental bycatch of sensitive marine species.
The issue of 'unwanted catch' was one of the more technical areas of the consultation due to the varying definitions applied. As such, there were some responses that called for further clarification in regard to the definition of "unwanted catch" as it applies within the FCP.
The terms unwanted catch and bycatch can be used synonymously - species that are caught unintentionally whilst engaged in fishing activities. For clarity however, and specifically in the context of the consultation, unwanted catch is used to refer to other quota species of fish that are caught when fishing a specific target species of fish (e.g. catching cod when fishing for haddock), and accidental bycatch refers to sensitive marine species (e.g. marine mammals and seabirds). The technical approaches taken to avoid each of these categories of unwanted catch and bycatch are very different in nature and therefore it is worth differentiating between the two.
The reduction of bycatch will help drive sustainable, economically viable and environmentally responsible fisheries across Scottish waters by helping fishers to ensure valuable fishing quotas are only used to land marketable fish, reducing the overall impact of fishing on the marine eco-system. Additionally, the accurate recording of what is caught at sea will help improve scientific data on stocks. This will be done in a collaborative manner with fishers and scientists in order to ensure that measures are properly evidenced and effective.
An external consultancy firm, Diffley Partnership, was appointed by the Scottish Government to undertake a detailed analysis of the consultation responses. A total of 244 valid responses were received to the consultation, with a mixture of respondents between individuals and organisations, and between environmental/conservation groups and fisheries organisations. A report detailing this analysis has been published and can be found at Future Catching Policy Consultation Analysis.
There were a number of responses that raised concerns about the issue of discarding and a perceived departure from EU alignment - specifically in relation to the efficacy of landing obligation exemption proposals. On reflection, it may have been possible to set out the policy intent in a clearer manner which may have gone some way to reassure respondents that the key aim of proposals is to tackle and reduce discarding to increase accountability in fishing activity. This will build on the principles the EU associates with sustainable and responsible fisheries to make improvements to the operability of the landing obligation and current legislation. We are clear that the principles underpinning the current landing obligation, particularly of reducing waste and maintaining healthy stocks, should be upheld.
The EU commission itself has recently published a package of measures, part of which focusses on the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and a non-binding Action Plan for Member States to make fishing practices more sustainable by working harder and better to implement the CFP rather than necessarily reforming it. In particular, there is a push for Member States to increase gear selectivity to reduce impact on sensitive marine species and to reduce bycatch of fish; to properly monitor and enforce the landing obligation to avoid unwanted catches and eliminate discards; and, to review the landing obligation by Autumn 2024. This direction of travel signalled by the EU Commission appears to mirror our own approach in the FCP. This supports our view that the FCP is the right approach to take to ensure we achieve sustainable fisheries management.
Furthermore, under the EU CFP discarding of quota species is generally illegal, however, there are a range of exemptions in place which allow some discarding to take place. In particular, there are a large number of exemptions currently in operation in EU waters (and similarly in UK waters allowing for the discarding of undersized juvenile fish). To emphasise this fact, across all regional plans within the EU there are a total of 480 stock exemptions under the landing obligation, 385 of which are species that fall under de minimis exemptions (nearly all for undersized fish) and 95 of which are species which are considered to have high survivability rates. There are rules governing when and how this can happen.
The exemptions can be complex and lack transparency, meaning that it can be difficult to account for their usage, hard to interpret in terms of the impact on fish stocks, and challenging to enforce - making this one of the key issues with the operability of the landing obligation as it stands. Although such exemptions are necessary to support continued fishing operations, this has led to a significant number of exemptions being put in place which are complex to understand and operate. This limits accountability and confidence in fishing operations, a key aspect the FCP is looking to address.
In addition, the FCP will introduce a range of baseline technical and spatial measures, designed in partnership with stakeholders, which will reduce levels of unwanted catch in the first place. This might mean, for example, some types of fishing vessel requiring to use additional selectivity measures as part of their nets, or to avoid certain fishing grounds when fish are spawning. The purpose of this is to reduce levels of unwanted catch as far as possible, with discarding rules and exemptions following any measures that are put in place. We believe this is a positive and more effective way to deliver improvements in the way we fish, and to ensure that we are fishing at sustainable and responsible levels; to take us a step closer to a healthy marine environment that benefits us all. Below is a summary of some of the other broad themes identified from respondent answers:
- The majority of respondents agreed consideration needs to be given to geographical variation within Scottish waters when agreeing best practices for the fleet segments due to the complexity of the ecology of the marine environment.
- Some responses highlighted that there is a need to be more prescriptive in the definition of wanted and unwanted catch.
- There was broad consensus in regard to the proposed fleet segments with the caveat that these must not remain static but instead remain flexible to allow for the development of novel fishing practices.
- The majority of responses agreed there should be specific spatial and technical measures for gill net and long line vessels to reduce gear conflict and reduce bycatch of sensitive species.
- There was a similar strength of feeling for vessels who use mobile gears, with some respondents calling for the banning of mobile bottom trawling.
- Responses indicated a concern with the process set out under the FMAC model. This may be reflective of the model that was in place at the time of consultation.
- Some respondents also noted the technical complexity of the consultation.
One topic which did not form part of the consultation, but which some provided comment on, was the allocation of fishing opportunities (quotas). As part of the Scottish Government's FFM Strategy we have committed to continuing to utilise the Fixed Quota Allocation (FQA) system as the main method of allocating quota. Where we have said we will allocate differently is in the allocation of Additional Quota. A separate consultation on the allocation of Additional Quota will be undertaken.
The FCP is a key policy to deliver sustainable fishing. However, its success relies on appropriate monitoring and enforcement tools being in place, to ensure that the rules and regulations are complied with. We have been clear that, in order for the FCP to be implemented successfully, we will need to look at enhanced monitoring tools to deliver both science and compliance benefits. This sentiment also came through in respondents' feedback with a strength of feeling that there needs to be forward movement in terms of data gathering, monitoring and enforcement at sea, and this needs to be appropriately resourced, to successfully deliver the FCP.
As part of our sustainable fishing approach, the Scottish Government's position is that technology such as the use of Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) has a central role to play. During the consultation period for the FCP the Scottish Government also ran a separate but related consultation on proposals relating to REM for certain types of fishing vessels (or 'fleet segments') operating in Scottish waters. REM supports compliance, but will also enhance our scientific capabilities, with the potential to use REM data in fisheries management decisions and, eventually, to feed into stock analysis.
A report detailing the REM consultation analysis has been published and can be found at REM - Analysis of Consultation.
The Scottish Government response to the REM consultation can be found at REM - Scottish Government Response to Consultation.
As we develop the FCP we intend to consider monitoring alongside this. As part of our consultation response we have signalled that we will consider further mandatory rollout of REM to other parts of the fishing fleet on a proportionate and risk-basis, but that we need to do further work on scoping, costs and benefits. It is important to note that we intend to take a 'fleet segment' approach to the FCP (as per the consultation and supported by respondents). This means that the management actions, as well as monitoring requirements, will vary between segments as well as areas of geographic activity.
1.2 Next Steps
The components of the FCP are complex, that is why as a first priority we intend to focus on increasing selectivity by developing technical and spatial measures to reduce unwanted catch and catch of sensitive marine species, as proposed in the consultation. In order to collaboratively find a way forward for these technical and spatial measures we intend to hold intensive dedicated stakeholder workshops, comprising technical expertise from across industry, academia, eNGOs and the Marine Directorate of the Scottish Government, taking a tailored fleet segment approach to these discussions.
The level of detail and discussion in each workshop will be informed by a number of factors including FCP proposals, consultation responses, and reviewing current spatial and technical measures within Scottish waters. The workshops are intended as a vehicle to allow us to engage in constructive conversation with stakeholders on how we can improve upon current legislative measures in order to make for a more sustainable, efficient and effective suite of measures moving forward; all within a collaborative format.
We intend to consult again on the outcomes of these workshops to ensure that we secure effective and reasonable technical and spatial measures for each fleet segment. Following the conclusion of the workshops, we will have collaborative discussions with our FMAC group regarding the proposals in the FCP around discard exemptions to the landing obligation and the implications of adjusting these. Once we have decided on a way forward we will deliver a suite of legislative measures into law through an FCP Scottish Statutory Instrument (SSI).
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