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Outcome of the December Fisheries Council Meeting

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 25th January 2016.

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Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I wish to make a statement on the outcome of the negotiations at the Fisheries Council, which I attended in Brussels on 14 and 15 December and which determined fishing opportunities for 2016. Members will find in the annex to my statement a map of fishing areas and a summary of the main total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas of interest to the local fleet.

Following the publication of scientific advice by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) at the end of June and at the end of October 2015 for our main stock, nephrops, the key priorities for the Council were developed through discussions between officials from the four fisheries administrations and engagement with key stakeholders and Ministers. Locally, I met the fishing industry task force on 5 November and, at that meeting, we agreed that area VII nephrops would remain my number one negotiating priority but that the case for Irish Sea haddock would be pressed hard.

My approach to the negotiations would be guided by the following key principles: total allowable catches should be determined by taking account of the most recent scientific data available; more stocks should be fished at maximum sustainable yield (MSY) in 2016 where possible; and we should support continued progress towards discard elimination. For our key priorities, we wanted to see TACs set for data-limited stocks on a case-by-case basis, taking account of stock trends; a TAC for area VII nephrops adjusted in line with the scientific advice and fishing patterns; a precautionary and responsible TAC for the herring stock in area VIa north; measures to recover sea bass stock that avoid disproportionate impacts on the more sustainable low-impact inshore fisheries; a balanced outcome for the mixed Celtic Sea and Channel fisheries, including cod, haddock, whiting, sole and plaice; and an agreement of an EU quota for blue whiting set at a MSY based on 45% of the total available.

Members may be aware that the landing obligation was introduced for the first time in January 2015 in pelagic fisheries for species such as mackerel and herring. Structures have been put in place to enable member states to work collaboratively to develop regional management proposals for the sea areas and fisheries they have an interest in. My Department works with others on the northwest waters group and, last year, I put forward discard plans for demersal fisheries as part of the progressive introduction of the landing obligation. This year will see more fisheries come within the scope of the CFP landing obligation. That meant that the Council negotiations were a little more complex, because the TACs for certain stocks needed to be raised to accommodate fish that must in future be brought ashore rather than returned to the sea. Our local fleet is now affected by this landing obligation in the nephrops and haddock fisheries.

The negotiations on the first day took place at a plenary session and then during trilateral meetings between individual member states, the Commissioner and the Luxembourg EU presidency. Following this, a first compromise was put to member states on the Tuesday morning. There was some movement in this first compromise on both my key priorities: nephrops went from -18% to -8%, and Irish Sea haddock went from -59% to -24%. What was being offered was still well short of what was needed and what the scientific evidence justified.

Members have been told often in statements such as this about how important the nephrops stock, commonly known as prawns, is to our fleet and the processing industry that depends on it. Each year, I have pressed the Commission for a fair deal on this stock that reflects the scientific advice and the prevailing fishing patterns by those member states that have quota shares. Inevitably, however, the Commission’s opening proposal has been based solely on the scientific assessment of VII different nephrops grounds, without regard to the how it is being fished — or rather, not fished — by some of the member states that hold quota. The relative stability share that each member state has of the TAC is fixed. For area VII the TAC is shared between Spain, France and Ireland, and we have 32·8%. These shares reflect historical fishing patterns, and there is no prospect of changing them for the foreseeable future.

Each year, I and my Southern counterpart, Simon Coveney, present a consistent and well-developed argument for setting the TAC higher than the science would suggest, in order to increase the value of our fixed share and get the quota that is needed by our fleets. I argue that the risk in taking this approach is very low, and landings of nephrops have been consistently below the level of the scientific advice for many years. The nephrops stock in area VII is stable, but there are some variances in the scientific catch advice from year to year. It is appropriate that the TAC changes in line with the change in the catch advice. This means that the TAC may increase in some years and decrease in others.

The scientific advice for catches in 2016 across all the nephrops stocks in area VII totalled 17,719 tons. This was 2% lower than the sum of the scientific advice for 2015, but the 2015 figure was 3% higher than that for 2014. These small variations from year to year are indicative of a stable stock that is being fished sustainably. In my discussions with the Commission and presidency, I said that the TAC for nephrops should decrease by just 2%, in line with the scientific catch advice. This would provide an appropriate TAC of just over 21,000 tons, to which a further uplift would be applied to take account of the landing obligation. This uplift is determined through scientific observations of the fishery and other flexibilities in the discard plan, and was agreed at 10·2%. I am pleased to say that the final outcome for the stock was to have a TAC of 23,348 tonnes, which represents a net increase of 8·2%.

It is Commission policy to follow a precautionary approach to TAC-setting where there is no analytical stock assessment available. I and fellow fisheries Ministers are strongly opposed to this approach, and we want to ensure that the Commission makes proposals using the scientific advice available rather than some arbitrary revision based on a one-size-fits-all policy. Irish Sea haddock is such a case, and this was my other key priority. The Commission, following its policy framework, had proposed a new TAC based on recent average catches and representing a 59% reduction on last year. However, in the case of Irish Sea haddock, reduced catches in recent years are not a reflection of the stock biomass, but due to other factors such as restrictions on days at sea, local fishing prohibitions to protect cod and the use of highly selective gears in the nephrops fishery.

In its scientific advice, ICES acknowledges that its advisory framework does not ideally suit this stock or any other stock that is subject to highly variable recruitment. The survey index used for the assessment of this stock is considered by ICES as being a good indicator of stock abundance. The 2015 estimate of stock abundance is the highest in the time series and more than double that of the late 1990s during the height of the fishery. The 2015 TAC was 1,181 tons, which was a roll-over based on the previous year’s TAC and was partially justified on the 22% increase in the index used by ICES. This year, that change was +118%, indicating a significant increase in stock size.

Ahead of the Council, my Department and AFBI put forward papers to the Commission presenting a case for an increase in the TAC of 20%. I pressed home points at the trilateral meeting with the Commission and the presidency and, in parallel with my counterpart Simon Coveney, I pressed for a significant uplift in the quota to accommodate the landing obligation. The final proposal from the Commission was to increase the TAC by 10% and uplift the quota by a further 355 tons for the landing obligation. This represents an overall increase of 40%.

A further significant development was a joint statement, which will appear in the TAC and quota regulation. It notes that the Commission and the Council understand that the assessment model for haddock in the Irish Sea is no longer fit for purpose, and they call on ICES to make every effort to find a suitable solution during 2016. Our scientific advisors in AFBI will be making an important contribution to those deliberations.

For many years, cod recovery plans have been in force in the Irish Sea to help build cod stocks. The fleet has made tremendous efforts to minimise cod mortality. Cod is now a by-catch fishery and our fleet reduces its impact on the stock by deploying highly selective gears in the nephrops fishery. There is no longer a directed fishery for Irish Sea cod, but fishers involved in the developing white fish fishery are skilfully targeting haddock while avoiding areas where cod is likely to be present. The latest assessment of cod stocks shows some small improvements.

The current cod recovery plan has been largely discredited. It provided for year-on-year restrictions on the number of days that could be fished in the cod recovery zone and year-on-year reductions in the TAC until stock targets were reached. Several years ago, the Council of Ministers took a decision to freeze the fishing effort restrictions provided for in the plan. The legality of this action was challenged in the European Court of Justice by the Commission and the Parliament. Its judgement was delivered earlier in December, with the ruling going against the Council, but the court allowed the effort freeze to remain for a further year to allow time for a new legislative instrument to replace the cod plan to be put in place. In a statement, the Commission said that it was conscious of the need to have appropriate provisions in place, and pledged its help for the Council and Parliament to achieve that aim.

The annex to my statement details the TAC movements to other fish stocks that are landed by the local fleet. The continued application of the cod recovery plan resulted in a 20% reduction in the cod TAC and there was a 56% cut in the sole TAC. We have a small amount of this quota, and the fish is caught as a by-catch. It is a concern for the future when this species is subject to the landing obligation and it may well have an impact as a choke species for the nephrops fleet. This is, however, a commitment to do further scientific work on the sole stock assessment. The reduction in herring of -6% was in line with the science and the maximum sustainable yield for this stock. There were welcome increases in hake and megrim and the fishing opportunities for other quota stocks remained unchanged.

Before I close, I want to give Members some more information about the landing obligation, which presents the most significant challenge for our fishing fleet. It is a ban on discarding fish overboard, but will apply only to stocks that are subject to total allowable catches. It started from 1 January 2015 for herring and mackerel fisheries and from 1 January 2016 for nephrops and white fish fisheries, but it does not apply to species like scallops, crab and lobster.

The main effect of the landing obligation in the North will be felt by the Irish Sea nephrops fleet. A recently published review by the Sea Fish Industry Authority of the potential economic implications of the landings obligation paints a bleak picture, with some scenarios suggesting that the fishery would be closed after only having fished a quarter of the days that it did compared to 2013. The key problem for the fleet is that it has small quotas for some stocks — whiting, sole and plaice, for example — caught as a by-catch in the nephrops fishery. These quotas will be quickly exhausted once the fleet is required to land them. These stocks are often referred to as choke species. However, the Sea Fish Industry Authority analysis excludes the effects of quota uplifts and the adoption of highly selective gears that may mitigate the impact of the landing obligation significantly. Our fleet has already adopted highly selective fishing gears. Huge changes have been made in the last two years to reduce catches of cod, and the selective fishing gear that is now in use also significantly cuts catches of juvenile whiting and other unwanted fish. The current gears reduce whiting catches by 50% to 65% and there is an ongoing programme of research involving scientists and the industry to make further improvements.

Trials are being supported by my Department to further improve selectivity, especially by-catches of whiting. It is important to stress that an acceptable fishing gear is one that not only achieves conservation objectives but ensures that the commercial catch is not seriously compromised. The only way of achieving that objective is to involve industry experts at every step of the way to find acceptable solutions.

The challenge presented by the landing obligation is not one that can be completely solved by gear technology. The ability to use many of the flexibilities under the landing obligation depends on being able to provide robust data. This includes data on the state of stocks and discard levels, on limits to selectivity in fishing gears and on survivability.

An important first step will be to identify areas where data is missing or can be improved and, thereafter, take steps to produce this data. I believe that my Department and its scientific advisers have a good working relationship with our local fishing industry. We have had a number of very important fisheries/science partnerships with our fleet, and I want to see those expand to help fill the gaps in our knowledge.

Finally, realistic quota uplifts to account for the extra fish that have to be landed will be critical, and that was a key part of the work with the Commission around the December negotiations. The landing obligation has been a major focus of attention at the fishing industry task force, and it has raised a number of practical difficulties aside from quota restrictions and improving gear selectivity. The task force has also highlighted operational difficulties: the extra sorting time on board will reduce the amount of time they can fish; storage space on board will be used up; and there will be costs for additional fish boxes and ice to keep these fish separated and in good condition. Processors are also unhappy that extra costs will be incurred, and there are uncertainties about the effect of extra landings on fish prices.

I am committed to finding acceptable solutions to these real-world problems. I will be making financial resources available from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), which is expected to come online shortly, to the catching and processing sectors and other businesses in the fish supply chain to assist with the handling, storage, disposal and marketing of increased supplies of fish landed under the landing obligation. I want to make sure that those measures receiving support minimise the cost of dealing with this material and maximise its potential value.

The fisheries task force also pointed to the need, for marketing and economic reasons, to make optimum use of landed species that are marketable and were previously discarded. New markets for human consumption are required for these species, and I am committed to making EMFF assistance available to support these investigations.

There are still many uncertainties and questions to be answered about how the landing obligation will work in practice and, indeed, the control framework that will be in place in future to provide an assurance that CFP obligations are being met. This is a work in progress, which will demand flexibility by all concerned.

I am grateful for this opportunity to inform Members about the outcome of the 2015 fisheries negotiations. In my key priorities for nephrops and haddock, the outcome was to secure an additional £1·2 million of fishing opportunities for local fishermen in 2016. Some 480 tons of additional prawn quota will be available for local fishermen in 2016, worth just over £1 million. This brings the value of the quota up to £14·2 million. The fleet will have access to around 160 tons of extra Irish Sea haddock, worth in the region of £170,000, which brings the value of the quota up to over £570,000.

I want to put on record my thanks to my colleagues George Eustice, Richard Lochhead, Rebecca Evans and Simon Coveney for their strong support throughout the negotiations.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 12:15 pm, 25th January 2016

Thank you Mr Speaker, and I would like to thank the Minister for her statement. I refer the Minister to the paragraphs in her statement that make reference to landing obligations. The first of the landing obligations for species such as mackerel and herring came into effect last year. I understand from previous briefings by officials that the landing obligations for prawns and white fish came into effect on 1 January 2016. What assessment has been done on the real-world financial impact of these landing obligations on our fleet and the associated processing industry?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

As I said throughout my statement, a number of challenges have been created for the local industry, and it is important that my officials and the scientists at AFBI continue to work with the task force that is in place to look at how we can best maximise the potential of exploiting the fish that they catch. What are the new markets for that? How can it be processed quickly and turned around into a profitable stock for the industry? Whilst there are certainly a number of challenges, I think that, collectively, we can take them on and work our way through them. It is important that we strive for efficiency in the industry, and I think that there will be opportunities with the new EMFF to bring forward some real, practical solutions to help the fishing industry to deal with the additional stock that they will have on board, including the fact that they might need to buy new boxes and the additional cost of having more ice on the boats. So there are a number of challenges. I think that, certainly, there will be opportunities for us to assess the industry and look to the future.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. Minster, you mentioned that you had secured a 24% increase of haddock despite the Commission recommending a 59% cut. What will this mean for the industry?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I was able to secure a significant increase in the basic TAC, as well as an appropriate uplift for the landing obligation to help the industry to meet it. Having started off with -59%, we ended up getting the Commission up to a 40% increase. That is something that creates additional opportunity for the industry. Producer organisations will have in excess of 160 tons of additional haddock available this year. That, in itself, is significant for the industry. It was quite a challenging negotiation to turn something around from what is almost -60% and come out at the other end with a 40% increase.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement. The best thing is to try to minimise discards. What encouragement or incentives — I am thinking in particular of future quota uplifts — are being used to promote use of more selective fishing gear to avoid catching small fish?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

We all share the same aspiration, which is to avoid discards and certainly to minimise them as much as we can. The industry has shown significant leadership over the last number of years by presenting to the Commission its ideas on how we can have more selective gear. Ours was one of the first industries to take that forward as its own initiative, and it avoided a cut to our local quota as a result. That was a very positive initiative. We need to look continually at what types of gear can be used. The industry continues to work with the Department on trialling different selective gear to see what works best for fishermen on their boats, what minimises discards, and what allows them to have a sustainable fishery and make some profit out of their everyday work.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

I also thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the news on the nephrops TAC. Given the implications for the white fish sector, will she update the House on the Irish Sea ecosystem project benchmarks and the cod tagging project?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I have no details on the latter two elements that you referred to, but I am very happy to respond to you in writing to give you more detail on where those projects sit.

It was a very difficult negotiation, and nephrops, or "prawns" as they are commonly known, are the most important fish stock for the local industry, so I was delighted that we were able to turn around what was potentially a very negative and detrimental cut to the industry and come out with an 8% increase. That creates a real and meaningful difference for the industry, which particularly needed it this year, given the challenges that it faces around white fish, discards, and selectivity and the other challenges to be met on the landing obligation. From that point of view, it was quite a successful negotiation.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I thank the Minister for her very detailed statement. We must offer gratitude for her work, and that of the Department, to come back with extra fishing opportunities worth an extra £1·2 million. The Minister will remember that, prior to going to Brussels, she met local fishermen. Their suggestions, among others, included developing more diverse and sustainable mixed fisheries in the Irish Sea to enable the Northern Irish fleet to be less reliant on the prawn/nephrops catch. Is the Minister satisfied that, notwithstanding the extra £1·2 million, that has materialised? Will there be a mixed opportunity, rather than depending on nephrops all the time?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Yes. As I said, the priority for the industry is nephrops, but we do need to have a more diverse fishery if we are going to be sustainable into the future. We therefore need to develop other opportunities. It was great that we were able to turn around what was a very negative proposal for haddock and come out with a 40% increase. That, in itself, creates a bit more of a opportunity outside of the mainstay of nephrops fishing.

An issue that was not resolved at the December Fisheries Council meeting is the task force working with the Department on what the medium- and longer-term aims for the industry are and what the strategy is for the industry going forward. It will certainly include developing a diverse fishery — one that does not depend solely on nephrops. Like anything in life, if you put all your eggs in one basket, you will be very dependent on it and held to ransom. It would be to the benefit of the industry if we could get to a stage at which we have a more diverse fishery.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Before we continue, we are getting very bad interference from the sound system, which makes life very difficult for Hansard. Will Members please check that they have their phones switched off?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Each January, the Minister comes to the House and reports on the high-wire act that is negotiations about our fisheries in Brussels. Will she note that Norway and Iceland have thriving, sustainable fish stocks and that they are outside the European Union? Given that, why did she lecture us last week on the dangers to Northern Ireland from the prospect of Brexit?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Because I have genuine concerns about a Brexit and its implications for local industry, not just fisheries but the agrifood industry. It is up to the Member whether he wants to go out into his constituency and talk to individual farmers who would lose their basic payment as a result of pulling out of Europe. Will the Tory Government replace that? I doubt it very much but, if he can give that assurance, I am sure that people would be very interested to hear it.

I can articulate my views on our position on being in or out of Europe. Are there challenges? Absolutely. Purely from the point of view of fisheries, there are difficulties when I go every December to argue the quota for the year ahead. It presents all sorts of challenges but I think that our position is far better in Europe, fighting our corner and making a case for the industry. We could debate all day our membership of the European Union and what it means.

The local agrifood industry would be decimated by coming out of Europe. What would the implications be for trade on this island? We export something like 80% of what we produce. Where would that product go? What about trade agreements? Are they going to be secured? Will that be allowed to happen? There are too many uncertainties, I believe. I will always articulate my view, as you are entitled to articulate yours.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Six weeks after the event, the statement is rather stale, so I will follow up on Mr Wells's point. Surely, even as an avowed Europhile, the Minister can now see that our 40 years in the EU has been a disaster for the fisheries sector? It is but a shadow of its former self. We are told where we can fish, when we can fish and what we can fish with in our own waters by Brussels, and we are handed down quotas. Surely the Minister can see, whatever she might think of other sectors, that the fishing sector would benefit tremendously from being freed of the shackles of the EU? Is she going to deny that simple fact?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I have made my points consistently in this House. At every Question Time when the Member has asked me about our membership of Europe, I have always said that there are certainly challenges but that we are better placed in Europe, with strong MEP teams fighting our corner. When it comes to fisheries, every December for the past five years, I have gone out and fought our corner very articulately and come back with good news, year on year.

We need to look at it in the round. Taking agriculture for example, who is going to replace the £300 million in single farm payments, or basic payments as they are now known? Who is going to replace that in the local economy? I am quite sure that you are aware that most farmers could not survive without their basic payment. Who is going to replace the £500 million in the rural development programme, which assists local rural tourism, rural businesses and basic services in rural communities?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I tell you what: I have seen the Tories in action. I have seen what they have done over the last number of years and I certainly would not want to give anyone a guarantee that they will replace supports for rural communities, for the agrifood industry and for business.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Tell us what Brussels has done to our fisheries.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Order. I will not warn the Member again.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

Without wanting to be repetitive, the Minister said that there are difficulties and challenges ahead. Anyone who knows anything of the fishing industry knows that, as the previous Member said, it has faced nothing but challenges and difficulties, given the regulations that Europe has very vociferously handed down. Will the Minister not at least concede that, whether or not she trusts the Tories and believes that they will give any subsidies to the fishing industry, there would be benefits from not having regulations coming from Europe and, in that sense, a Brexit might not be a bad thing?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

No, I am not convinced of that. There are too many uncertainties. We do not know what would be at the other side of that. We do not know what it would mean for the fishing industry's trading patterns and for the wider agrifood industry. There is no point in rehearsing the arguments that I made previously, but there are too many uncertainties.

We do not know what will come out the other side, but the one thing that we can be certain of is Tory policy. The Tories will not be up for supporting subsidies for the fishing industry, the agrifood industry or the farming industry. They are not up for that. I do not think that any of us can stand over anything that will be at the other side of a potential Brexit, but we can stand over the Tories' track record.

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 25th January 2016

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. It is clear to see that there is an election around the corner, with the TUV and the DUP fighting over the "Leave Europe" stance. Perhaps one of the benefits from Europe on this — the Minister alluded to it in her statement — is the European maritime fisheries fund. Perhaps the Minister could outline what benefits that fund —

Photo of Christopher Hazzard Christopher Hazzard Sinn Féin

It is not a plant. The Member is shouting "plant" from a sedentary position. As a Member who represents the fishing industry in Ardglass and Kilkeel, I know that the European maritime fisheries fund would go a long way to improving the industry. Those two ports have a specific interest in it. Perhaps the Minister could outline the benefits that that fund could have.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I think that the industry in that area would be keen to know that some Members are suggesting that we should send back the £13·7 million that will be available to their communities. That is the figure that we have for the EMFF programme over the next six years. That, along with local funding, will bring over £18·3 million of investment for fishermen, processors, the aquaculture sector and for the communities and people who live round the ports. That is significant investment in the time ahead that will allow us to do a lot of initiatives to help those communities and help us to deal with some of the challenges that have been identified around the landing obligations. It will be the backbone of supporting the fishing and seafood sectors up until 2020, with the bulk of the funding going towards dealing with the CFP reform measures and improving the economic future and sustainability of local fishing ports.