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Brussels urged to think again on discards ban

North Sea Commission marine resources group chairman Anders Fasth from Sweden (centre) and adviser Camilla Stavnes from Norway (left) with local councillors Drew Ratter (second from left) and Jonathan Wills (right) and NAFC director Willie Shannon (fourth from left). Photo courtesy of Shetland Islands Council.

EUROPEAN politicians who pushed through the discards ban have a “moral responsibility” to look again at the unworkable policy, according to Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins.

He was speaking after giving a presentation to the North Sea Commission (NSC)’s marine resources group at the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway on Monday.

Local delegates and visitors from The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden heard Collins set out a host of practical operational reasons why a ban on discards simply won’t work in waters containing several different species of whitefish.

The controversial discards ban is being phased in between now and 2019, and the first step has seen the throwing away of haddock and plaice being prohibited since 1 January.

Collins said that if the wider way in which fisheries are managed was overhauled, there was no reason why a discards ban could not work.

But he was heavily critical of Brussels politicians for pushing through the changes without taking time to research the issue properly.

“There is confusion, we’ve never been here before,” Collins said. “Nobody knows exactly what the rules are, nobody knows who’s responsible for unwanted fish – there are a whole lot of operational questions that we really have the vaguest notion about so far.

“You don’t just decree something when it’s incompatible with the system that you have. The management system has to change to take account of the very, very mixed fisheries we have.”

Norway took 30 years to get where it is today, he said, yet the EU has only recently opened dialogue with the industry there.

The North Sea Commission's delegation were impressed with the close working relationship between fishermen and scientists in Shetland.

“Not only is Europe trying to condense 30 years into three,” Collins said, “they’re also doing it without bothering to talk to Norway, which you’d have thought would be the first thing to do.

“I think politicians thought it was a quick fix, it was too time-consuming and too tedious to go and talk to other people – leaving it to the fishing industry to deal with the mess.

“The politicians took a hasty decision, they have a moral responsibility. You can’t just sign something and then walk off. They have to look at it again.”

He said Norway’s approach placed the emphasis on avoiding discards in the first place, and it was viewed as “more of a partnership between fishing vessels and compliance authorities” – whereas in Europe the culture is more one where “there’s gamekeepers and there’s poachers”.

“Once the net’s in the water, you can’t tell a fish not to go in – they’re not that bright,” he said.Collins said having an understanding of how fishing works would allow for “accommodations” to be made if, for instance, fishing boats can demonstrate that they have been trying to avoid catching undersized fish.

In Norway, if the wrong type of fish is caught, boats land them and then receive a small proportion of the proceeds, with the rest of the money going towards research.

While the European Parliament having more say on decisions has democratic benefits superficially, in practice only a few MEPs have a direct interest in fishing. Yet a Hungarian or Slovakian MEP’s vote on fishing-related matters has equal weight with that of a UK MEP representing a fishing constituency.

“Perish the thought, if I was an MEP for Scotland, I could decide almost when a Hungarian fruit farmer could prune his fruit trees,” Collins said.

“I have absolutely no understanding of that and no business involving myself in that decision, but in fisheries it works the other way round.”

NSC marine resources group vice chairman Jonathan Wills said the plan to end discards was “very well-intentioned”, but hadn’t been properly thought out.

“In an area like Shetland, where we have always between six or eight species coming up with every tow of the trawl, it’s simply unworkable,” he said.

“If you have caught all your hake quota in one month, you cannot go to sea for another 11 months because you will catch hake.”

It could have grave consequences for the seafood sector as Shetland’s largest employer – far outstripping the oil and gas industry in economic significance.

Wills spoke of the “multiplier” effect and how, if fishing boats start going bust, “you’re going to have fewer companies available to do marine engineering, you won’t be able to get your annual refit done, you won’t be able to get running repairs done as easily”.

That means that, while not directly affected by the discards ban, pelagic fishing and shellfish could both lose out if one part of the industry begins to collapse, he said.

NSC’s executive secretary Camilla Stavnes, from Norway, said the organisation represented 31 regions in the North Sea and helped ensure Shetland had a strong voice in Brussels, but the issue of discards was “a difficult topic” and “unfortunately there are also other interests represented”.

Stavnes said she was highly impressed by the way Shetland handles marine planning, something that is “totally unique in Europe” – in large part owing to powers being devolved to the islands under the ZCC Act.

“We don’t have any other example of best practice regionally,” she said. “I have never been in a region where I heard so efficient dialogue between fishermen and scientists – quite unique.”

Wills said fisherman traditionally regarded scientists as the enemy, but researchers at the NAFC had gained the trust of the industry. Boats are willing to share their log books in confidence and provide information that is “often not available to national governments”.

Stavnes also said the isles’ marine plan, mapping out the uses of different parts of the coastline, made it a “more attractive place for businesses to invest”. That is something other regions in Europe could learn from, she said.

Meanwhile, Wills said the possibility of the UK leaving the EU could have “catastrophic” effects on Shetland because it was so closely integrated into European markets for fisheries, tourism and agriculture.

When standing for the Labour party way back in 1972, he was opposed to membership of Europe because of the terms negotiated on fishing.

He is “still not happy about it”, though the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has “not been all bad” and did help curb overfishing, allowing stocks to recover.

“I think it’s a banker’s Europe, not a people’s Europe, but if we’re out of it then we will be unable to influence things,” Wills added.