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Europe aims to stop horse-trading over fish

October 26, 2006 By Katharine Sanderson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Commission's proposals seek to avoid last-minute quota decisions

Last-minute wrangling over European fishing quotas could be curbed by a science-based procedure proposed by the European Commission.

Until now, yearly European fishing quotas have been set in last-minute, secret, all-night negotiations heavily influenced by lobbying and bargaining. In such an environment, scientific advice is often ignored.

But this year, the European Commission has proposed a framework outlining the boundaries it will use for setting quotas according to the health of each fish stock, in advance of ministers' negotiations, set to take place in December.

The increased transparency should allow for more considered discussion, says commission spokeswoman Mireille Thom. "This should lead to less pressure at the council meetings, thus allowing for fewer hurried, last-minute decisions," she says.

Fishy business

Each year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) gives scientific advice based on surveys, market sampling and fishery returns to the commission's elected scientific committee, which then revises the advice and passes it on to the Council of Ministers.

This year's scientific data was released on 20 October. ICES has recommended a ban on cod fishing in the North Sea, West of Scotland, and Irish Sea. But ICES has recommended a zero quota for cod for the past four years, and in this period 81,000 tonnes of cod have been caught.

The system is "grossly flawed", says Chris Frid, a marine ecologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, who works for ICES. "When it gets to the ministers this is purely a political forum," he says.

It will be harder for ministers to make decisions that fly in the face of science.
Chris Frid,
University of Liverpool, UK
Frid hopes that the new regime will pay more heed to scientific advice. "It will be harder for ministers to make decisions that fly in the face of science."

The change is an initiative of Joe Borg, European commissioner for fisheries and maritime affairs. Borg's proposal sets six categories of fish stocks based on the biological risk they are under and states the commission's intentions for each category when setting quotas.

One category, for example, includes stocks that have yields below their theoretical upper limits a sign of overfishing but that do not seem to be in danger of extinction. This includes whiting and herring in certain areas. For such a stock, the commission recommends that next year's quota should not be more than 15% higher or lower than this year's.

Such information will allow member states to predict quota changes and so negotiate in a more considered way. "Until now, people didn't know what the commission was thinking," says Thom.

But, she adds, the final decision is still a political one. "The council can depart from the commission's proposal. This is the normal and proper process in democratic societies. Scientists provide advice and politicians take the decisions."

Buying time

John Williams, director-general of Norway's ministry of fisheries, thinks the answer for fish stocks lies in better management strategies rather than quotas, but recognizes that Borg's changes will buy decision-makers some time. "It will make it more transparent; it will mean that more stakeholders can be involved," Williams says.

Last-minute wrangling over quotas is only one problem facing fish stocks, says Steve Buckland, an ecologist and statistician at the University of St Andrews, UK, but he nevertheless welcomes any move to get rid of it. Getting accurate data is more problematic, he says. "The methods being used are over-optimistic in their predictions of what's in the sea now."

The genuine picture of fish stocks is too bleak for politicians to acknowledge, he says. "It would be suicide for governments to come out with realistic estimates."

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