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EC's Proposal on Fishing Possibilities: Why and How?

EU - Ideally, fishing activities would take from each stock no more fish than can safely be removed without inhibiting the stocks renewal capacity. Conservation lies at the core of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and measures aimed at calculating safe levels of capture and ensuring that they are respected are among the main measures under this policy.

What are TACs and Quotas?

Setting total allowable catches (TACs) means fixing the maximum quantities of fish that can be landed from a specific stock over a given period of time. TACs are set on the basis of a proposal from the Commission, but final power of decision rests with the Council of Fisheries Ministers.

The Regulation adopted by the Council also contains an allocation key for sharing out the TACs in the form of quotas among Member States. When the CFP was established, a formula was devised to divide TACs up according to a number of factors, including countries' past catch record. This formula is still used today, on the basis of what is known as the principle of 'relative stability', which ensures Member States a fixed percentage share of fishing opportunities for commercial species.

How are TACs and quotas decided?

Total Allowable Catches (TACs) are traditionally decided on a year-by-year basis by the Council of Fisheries Ministers at their meeting in December. The Council’s decision is the last stage in a long process involving scientists and, in many cases, fishermen from the Member States.

Scientific advice is provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which uses biological data collected by national research institutes from research campaigns and landing records to assess the state of the main commercial stocks (stocks targeted by fishermen). The stock assessments for the north-east Atlantic are then examined by the group of national experts who sit on the ICES Advisory Committee on Fishery Management (ACFM), which then delivers a report containing its analysis and recommendations for TACs to the European Commission.

The European Commission subsequently consults its own advisers – the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries (STECF), which is also made up of national experts. Negotiations are also held with non-EU countries and regional fisheries organisations which have an interest in or responsibility over the same fishing grounds or stocks. In the case of joint stocks, such as cod in the North Sea, the Commission negotiates bilaterally with Norway.

The Commission then analyses the various options and sets out proposals for the following year's total allowable catches and the conditions under which they may be caught. These proposals are discussed informally with stakeholders and with the Member States, before being submitted to the Council of Ministers, which takes the final decision regarding both TACs and any related measures.

This annual mechanism has often resulted in fluctuations which have not only prevented fishermen from planning ahead, but have also failed to conserve fish stocks. As a result, under the new CFP, the EU is beginning to move towards setting long-term quantifiable objectives for attaining and/or maintaining safe levels of fish stocks in European waters, as well as the measures needed to reach these levels, so that annual TACs are not isolated annual decisions, but part of a multi-annual effort to manage the fisheries.

Two types of multi-annual plans are now being put in place: recovery plans, to help rebuild stocks that are in danger of collapse; and management plans for stocks which are at safe biological levels, in order to ensure that they stay that way. This change of approach means that for these stocks, major decisions on admissible catch levels are no longer being taken in quite the same way, under very tight deadlines at the end of each year. Instead, each plan contains a formula for calculating annual TACs and quotas on the basis of the scientific stock estimates received. The Commission is thus able to consult extensively in advance with all the parties concerned on the objectives to be achieved under each plan and how they should be met. Both management and recovery plans are based on a precautionary approach to fisheries management which seeks to ensure that fisheries are sustainable and to minimise their impact on the marine environment.

Meanwhile, under a practice known as ‘frontloading’, the Commission has increasingly been seeking to circulate its proposals for TACs and quotas for stocks not covered by multi-annual plans in advance of the December Council meeting, so as to allow for more extensive discussion, both with stakeholders, and with the Member States.

This year, the Commission published a policy statement in May (see IP/08/828) outlining the principles it would use to interpret scientific advice when proposing fishing possibilities for 2009. These included strengthening the role of long-term planning, ensuring measures are always proportionate to biological risk, and providing stability for the fisheries sector wherever possible. This document provided a substantial basis for discussion with Member States and stakeholders. The Commission had already tabled a proposal on fishing possibilities in the Baltic Sea in early September (see), which was adopted by Council in October.

How do multi-annual plans prevent the TACs and quotas from fluctuating as they did before?

As a general principle, the multi-annual plans stipulate that the variation in TACs from one year to the next cannot exceed 15%, whether the change is an increase or a reduction. This constraint was arrived at through extensive consultation with the fishing industry, and represents the maximum level of variation which fishermen feel is compatible with economic stability. However, when the state of a given stock requires particularly urgent and stringent measures, such as may be necessary to save it from collapse, then a reduction greater than 15% may be proposed.

Who are the scientists who provide the Commission with advice? What is ICES?

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is an international organisation which coordinates and promotes marine research in the North Atlantic, including adjacent seas such as the Baltic Sea and North Sea. It currently has 19 members, which are all states bordering the North Atlantic, and draws on contributions from more than 1600 marine scientists.

The 20 member countries of ICES are: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States of America

ICES is the leading independent authority for advice on the marine ecosystem to governments and international regulatory bodies that manage the North Atlantic Ocean and adjacent seas. Scientists working through ICES gather information about the marine ecosystem. As well as working to fill gaps in existing knowledge, they also develop this information to give unbiased, non-political advice on ecosystem and fisheries management. More information can be found at the ICES website:

The Advisory Committee on Fishery Management (ACFM) is responsible, on behalf of the Council, for providing scientific information and advice on living resources and their harvesting. ACFM meets twice a year (summer and late autumn). In formulating its advice on the management of around 135 stocks of fish and shellfish, ACFM uses information prepared by numerous ICES stock assessment Working Groups.

And what is the STECF?

The implementation of the CFP requires the assistance of highly qualified scientific personnel, particularly in the fields of marine biology, marine ecology, fisheries science, fishing gear technology and fisheries economics. For that purpose the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) was established by Commission Decision n° 93/619/EC, renewed in 2005 by Commission Decision n° 2005/629/EC.

The Members of the STECF are appointed by the Commission from among highly qualified scientists on the basis of their expertise, and consistent with a geographical distribution that reflects the diversity of scientific issues and approaches within the Commission. The term of a Member of the Committee is three years and is renewable.

The Committee may form internal working groups, whose meetings can also be attended by invited experts. The Joint Research Centre provides the secretariat of both the Committee and the working groups, and the Commission establishes the terms of reference.

The STECF may be consulted at regular intervals by the Commission on matters pertaining to the conservation and management of living aquatic resources, including biological, economic, environmental, social and technical considerations.

The Committee produces an annual report on the situation as regards fisheries resources and on developments in fishing activities. It also reports on the economic implications of the fishery resources situation.

More information about STECF can be found at:

What recovery plans are already in place? What further plans have either been proposed or will be proposed soon?

Since 2003, the Council has established Long-term recovery plans for cod in the North Sea, Kattegat, Skagerrak, eastern Channel, west of Scotland, and Irish Sea, for northern hake stocks and for southern hake and Norway lobster off the Iberian Peninsula.

Apart from that multi-annual plans are in place for the stock of sole in the Bay of Biscay, sole in the Western channel sole and plaice in the North Sea and Baltic sea cod.

The Commission has moreover made proposals for a long-term plan for stock of herring distributed to the West of Scotland and for a revision of the cod recovery plan, and intends during the course of 2009 to present further proposals regarding a long-term plans for northern hake, anchovy in the Bay of Biscay and horse mackerel in the Atlantic.

Why does the existing days-at-sea system for managing fishing effort not work?

The days-at-sea system was intended to reduce fishing effort in line with the reductions in TACs, in order to reduce discarding and remove the opportunity for illegal fishing. As such, it was an essential part of a number of long-term plans, including those for cod. However, as the cod plans have illustrated, the large number of complex derogations introduced at the request of Member States have effectively neutralised the impact of the scheme, and made it almost unworkable. Thus for example, between 2004 and 2006, fishing effort on cod decreased by only 12 % in the Kattegat, 9 % in the Skagerrak, the North Sea and the Eastern Channel, 24 % to the West of Scotland, and 17 % in the Irish Sea. These reductions are far smaller than those which would have been required to bring about a significant reduction in fishing mortality.

The current system allows offsetting the decrease in the days at sea by complex derogations. Some of these even allocate fishing rights to inactive vessels, which can then be transferred to active vessels. In order to meet realistic effort reduction targets in the future, a more effective approach is required.

How will the new kilowatt-days system of effort management work?

The kilowatt-days approach would let Member States themselves decide on a balance between fleet capacity and fishing opportunities. Effort ceilings (expressed in kilowatt-days) would be set for groups of vessels or fleet segments based on recent levels of real effort deployed. These ceilings would then be managed at national level by the Member States. This would also let Member States fine-tune allocations of kW-days to encourage low-discard fishing. Reductions in effort would be proportionate to the targeted reductions in fishing mortality for each segment. This approach has already been introduced in the revision of the Cod Recovery Plan adopted by the Commission in April. It is now proposed to immediately extend this approach to cover all effort limitations set in the 2009 TACs proposal.