Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Richard Benyon vows to drive through 'ambitious' EU fishing reforms

Richard Benyon, the UK's fisheries minister, has vowed to drive "ambitious and radical reform" of the EU's common fisheries policy at a key meeting in Brussels this week.

In an interview with the Guardian, he listed three main goals for the UK – to ensure that a new proposal for fishing to be carried on strictly within a "maximum sustainable yield" that would be legally binding; a ban on the discarding of edible fish at sea, and a devolution of key aspects of managing fishing quota to member states, instead of being controlled entirely from Brussels. problems.

This week's tense meeting, which follows more than two years of negotiations over the management of the EU's dwindling fish stocks, will not reach a conclusion until late on Tuesday night or some time on Wednesday morning, the European commission warned. Once a common position has been agreed, more talks will follow next week to finalise further details. problems.

Benyon acknowledged that there were "forces [that want] to scupper this deal", but said the UK would refuse to do a deal "that goes against our principles". While a discards ban is likely to come into force in some form, some member states want fishermen to have much more leeway in how much of their catch they are allowed to throw away as being unavoidable. The UK wants no more than 5% of any catch to be allowed to be discarded under any circumstances, but other countries have suggested as much as doubling this. problems.

But Benyon warned that governments must work closely with fishermen in order to make the reforms work. "We are working closely with the fishing industry to do [the reforms] in a practical way," he said. "I do not want to transfer a problem that happens at sea to landfill." problems. He said that cooperation with fishing fleets was already bearing fruit. "Great work has been done on a dramatic reduction in discards of white fish," he said. "Much has come from incentivising, working with fishermen." problems.

Although some large fishing interests, particularly in Spain and France, have been starkly opposed to any deal on discards and a legally binding maximum sustainable yield, Benyon emphasised that many fishermen had been supportive. "It would be entirely wrong if people thought the ban was in the teeth of opposition of the industry – though some are very concerned about the practicalities [such as] having to bring back fish having maybe been gone for days." He said: "In fairness to them, they are raising concerns in a way that accepts this is going to happen and to make it work." problems.

The minister has seen for himself what discarding means in practice – he went to sea with a trawler, and saw whiting being discarded in the North Sea. He credits campaigners with helping to ensure there was support for a discards ban. "I would never have been able to get agreement on radical reform agenda without all the NGOs on this. [This is] a revolution on how to manage our seas." problems.

Some countries are also reluctant to allow the "maximum sustainable yield" – a scientific measure that would ensure that quotas were set at a level where the stocks could restore themselves naturally – to be made legally binding, as the UK and most northern European countries want. problems.

Scientific research will need to be brought to bear as fisheries management develops. Benyon noted the effects of climate change: "The seas are changing - cod are moving further north, other fish are in greater abundance, mackerel are moving." On "regionalisation", which would allow some aspects of fisheries management – such as net size and the level of quota given to smaller and larger boats - to be decided by member states, there is broader agreement. Benyon described the current situation in which fishermen in Ullapool were having their net size decided in Brussels. "How bonkers is that?" he asked. A key aspect would be ensuring that the regulations are applied fairly across the whole of the EU's fisheries. "[Previous] proposals would have had some trawlers fishing some waters but not having to abide by some of the rules. The ridiculous concept of the common fisheries policy is that [it] tries to manage waters from the Arctic to the southern Mediterranean. You can't have a system that applies to all ecosystems but you can have common principles you can make in law." problems.

This week's meeting is the culmination of more than two years of wrangling. The decisive starting point came early in 2011 when the European fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, publicly disclosed her key aim of ending the wasteful practice of discards. This proposal had itself followed years of work behind the scenes by the commission, but when the proposals began to be publicly debated there were strong voices of opposition from some quarters. problems.

The commission's proposals were narrowly passed by member state fisheries ministers, though they were nearly scuppered at several points. Then they received strong support in a vote in the European parliament. Now, the final stages of the process will provide the last chance for opponents of the reforms to derail the proposals. It will then take further work to put the finishing touches on the reforms, before they can come into force. problems.

Commissioner Damanaki said: "Substantial progress has been made in the negotiations between the European parliament and the council [of ministers] on the commission's proposal for a reformed common fisheries policy. The EU is on the doorstep of a historical deal that would put fish stocks on the road to recovery, eliminate the wasteful practice of discarding and ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to fishermen. "It is the responsibility of all institutions not to jeopardise a final deal because of disagreements over a few percentage points [in terms of amount of inadvertent catch that can be discarded]; one or two years [between the proposed introduction of a ban]; detailed technical rules or institutional power struggle. It is now time for both the European parliament and the council to make that extra final step towards each other that is necessary to come to a final agreement that will launch a new era of healthy fish stocks, viable fishing industries and more and better paid jobs for fishermen." problems.

While green campaigners have warned that the battle is far from over, and that the opponents of the reforms could yet gain the upper hand in the final hours, Benyon said he was optimistic that the reforms would be successful. "I do not see this is some great giant gulf [among member states over the issues]," he said. "There could be blocking minority against reform … but I do not think they will find the opportunity to scupper the deal." problems.

But he admitted compromises might be needed: "I might have to make a decision that will not particularly please me or many people who write to me or campaign to me … [but] I am determined that any agreement will not go against our principles."

Read the original article here

Source: The Guardian
Author: Fiona Harvey
Image courtesy of Rubulz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)