Examination of Witness

Fisheries Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Dr Carl O’Brien gave evidence.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 2:30 pm, 6th December 2018

Welcome, Dr O’Brien. Could you please introduce yourself and your role to the members of the Committee?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

My name is Carl O’Brien. I am the chief fisheries science adviser for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am also the UK delegate to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and I am now one of its life presidents. Also, I am from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is one of DEFRA’s Executive agencies. I attend Fisheries Council meetings with our Minister, and I have attended with previous Ministers, to negotiate quotas.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Carl and I have worked together on many late nights at December Council.

The Committee is hearing a lot about MSY and the use of it as a guide to fisheries management, but I wondered whether you might be able to explain to everyone, first of all, the types of raw data that CEFAS collects through things such as a survey vessel, Endeavour, the work done on fishing vessels and on landings to gather the raw data, and, secondly, how that data is used—as close to layman’s terms as you can—to create the MSY position for a given stock.

Dr Carl O'Brien:

Before the common fisheries policy was agreed, most fisheries management went through the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. The data that was used by the NEAFC and that is used by the Commission comes from ICES. At the moment, ICES is made up of 19 member countries that are not just from Europe; it also includes Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Norway, America and Canada.

Each country records landings data, which is done for us through the Marine Management Organisation. It records effort data, which is the so-called fishery-dependent data. We also have fishery-independent data: in our case, we have the research vessel Endeavour, which goes to sea and surveys around our waters for distributions of individual species. We record the type of species and their size. We take the little earstones, otoliths, out of their ears and age them in a way that is similar to ageing trees—if you slice through the otoliths, you can count growth rings.

We have length measurements of fish, we have age readings, we have species composition, and we have species distribution. All that information is given to ICES. In the case of the UK, because we have devolved Administrations, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England—England does some of the sampling for Wales—combine their data together and it goes in as the UK data. Countries within Europe, such as Germany and France, do something very similar.

The landings data and the biological data are all put together and we carry out formal assessment models. These can be data-intensive and very complicated mathematical models, or they can be more simplistic models, using life history characteristics—things based on growth rates and size of individuals.

Essentially, the assessments are international. It is not the UK assessing our fish stocks in our waters; it is done internationally, there is international agreement and it is not just within the EU but outside the EU, as well.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q When we talk about data-limited stocks, what typically is lacking for a stock to be data-limited rather than one with a full dataset on which you can judge MSY?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

Before I joined fisheries in the mid-90s, virtual population analysis was used, which is an age structure-based model. You actually use age data. As long as you can age fish, you can model the development of fish as they grow, the same as you would with human populations—one-year-olds become two-year-olds, who then become three-year-olds. You can take into account natural mortality through natural deaths and also exploitation rates—death through fishing.

The typical data-rich models are those that have the age-based data. The data-limited ones are those where, for various reasons, we either cannot age the fish or it is too expensive to age the fish, so we have simpler methods, such as the size of the fish or maturity ogives, which are simpler types of metrics. However, we can still come up with so-called proxies. Back in 2015, within ICES, I was developing methods with our Portuguese and French colleagues to come up with MSY proxies, which, as the Minister knows, the Commission will now accept as MSY values. They are not treated as second-class MSY values. They are appropriate for the data-limited stocks.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Could you explain briefly the difference between the biomass MSY and fisheries MSY, and why FSMY is deemed the right measure to use for fisheries management?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

Partly because it is a question of input and output. To a certain extent you can control fisheries exploitation—the harvest rate. You can control how many boats go to sea and, by implication, how many fish are taken out of the sea. The biomass is a consequence of your management being appropriate or right for the sea and for the species. If you get the balance between exploitation or harvest rate correct, your biomass should continue to grow. One is input; one is output.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Would you explain where, from a scientific point of view, using MSY throws up practical problems—for instance, with mixed fisheries or where there are choke species—and what we might do to overcome some of those problems?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

Do you want to know the history of MSY before I answer that, or can I take it that you know it?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

You gave us a bit of the history. My question is more about where it poses practical problems, on mixed fisheries and choke species.

Dr Carl O'Brien:

The problem is that the stocks in European waters, Icelandic waters and Faroese waters, and in the Barents sea for Norway, are assessed on a single-species basis. The reference points that we have in terms of biological reference points and harvest rates are determined on a single-species basis. Unfortunately, when you put your fishing net in the water, you cannot catch just cod or haddock, or if you try to fish for plaice you cannot catch just plaice; you end up with sole and other species, so you have the so-called mixed fishery problem.

The reference points themselves would be fine in an ideal world where you could fish for just those species. The mixed fishery issue is that you cannot simultaneously achieve all those single-species FMSY values. The approach that scientists have come up with is basically to ask, “Can you find a range around MSY?” The UK was very instrumental in this, and the Minister took our paper to Council in, I think, 2013—the first time we tried it with the Commission.

The idea was to look at ranges. Can you find a range of fishing mortalities that are consistent with high long-term yield? The value that ICES took was 95% of the maximum. Some academics, such as Ray Hilborn, take 80%, which ICES thought was going too far—that could give you quite high Fs. ICES is being quite constrained in the way in which it is trying to manage the mixed fisheries and the choke issues. The reason for the range is that it allows you to try to deal with some of the mismatches between the availability of fish on the ground and the fact that the gear may not be as selective as it needs to be.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Finally, Norway uses MSY, but also uses a number of other measures. It is sometimes argued that following MSY on its own gives you too much volatility and year-to-year change in stock management. Is there anything that we can learn from the Norwegians’ approach? Do they have a point in terms of having a slightly more holistic approach to sustainable fishing?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

Norway, like Iceland, although it wants to follow the general principle of maximum sustainable yield, is not wedded to it to the exclusion of other principles. There may be reasons why one year you might choose to exploit at a slightly higher rate than MSY, rather than at or below MSY.

The Norwegians also have the idea of so-called “balanced harvesting”. Rather than trying to decide how much cod, haddock or whiting you want, you decide, based on the trophic level of where species live, how much you could take out of that part of the system for it to remain balanced. That includes not only the fish species that we look at, but seals, seabirds, whales and other parts of the ecosystem.

We can learn from Norway that if you focus just on fish themselves and the fisheries, you will lose a part of the ecosystem around seabirds, cetaceans and whales. That is something that we need to incorporate into our models. The Government’s 25-year environment plan mentions an ecosystem approach to fisheries management, which I interpret as, starting with the mixed fisheries models, asking how you expand those to take into account other aspects of the ecosystem.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Q One of the concerns that many stakeholders have raised with us is about data deficiency, especially on non-quota species. How would you recommend that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations address that data deficiency, especially among species where there might be concerns but not a huge amount of evidence gathered to date?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I think you would be surprised how much evidence has been gathered for non-quota species. Seafish had a project called Project Inshore, which I think is now in its second phase, looking mainly at shellfish species. Quite a lot of data has been collected from around the ports by Project Inshore, with the support of the fishermen and the IFCAs. There is a lot of information from that project.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is committed to progressing its assessments of species like scallops, whelks and crabs. There is a commitment from the Minister’s Department to actually improve data collection and the assessment of those species. I think things are all going in the right direction. At CEFAS, we started this work back in 2010 with ICES, recognising that not having assessments of non-commercial species or data-limited stocks was a drawback to fisheries management.

The Minister answered a Parliamentary question in January, when we came back from December Council, which quoted 31 stocks out of 45 being exploited at MSY. We do not exploit just 45 stocks as a nation—we exploit in excess of 150. A lot of those are data-limited and they may be small tonnages, but they are very important species for local fishermen, certainly down in the south-west. I think we are improving the quality of the data we have available. It is not just for scientists; it is for the fishing industry and for the likes of Seafish.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Q As another west country MP, I agree that we need more data to support the mixed fisheries that we have. What is the progress that needs to be made to get to fully documented fisheries? One of the difficulties that some of our stakeholders have been flagging up is that some of our fisheries cannot be classed as sustainable simply because there is not enough data to prove that they are or not. What do we need to do to get to fully documented fisheries?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I think it depends on the size of the vessel. Large offshore vessels already keep logbooks. A lot of the English fleet has cameras on board, so that is helping the documentation. I am aware of projects down in the south-west, such as Fishface, where they are trying to use cameras on under-10 metre vessels, with quite a lot of success. It is making the best use of the technology that is available. A few years ago, with DEFRA funding, CEFAS developed apps for mobile phones so skippers could go out on smaller vessels and their positions were known through the apps. They could also fill in electronic log sheets, certainly for shellfish species, and record how many pots were put in the water and what quantity of shellfish was being lifted from the sea.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Q That is good. The UK has some of the best fishery science in the entire world, if not the best.

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I agree.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Q That brings me to an allied question that goes along with access to waters. If we are requiring British fishing boats to have this high level of reporting—entirely appropriately—do we have the same level of data coming from foreign boats accessing UK waters?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

The answer is that it is variable, depending on the country. The Danes are quite well advanced and are similar to us, in that they have cameras on board their vessels. If your question is about vessels that might have access to our waters in the future, then I think whatever measures we use or apply to our own fishermen should be applied to other vessels coming into our waters. If we require cameras then that should be a requirement for a French or German vessel to come into UK waters. It has to be a level playing field. It is not necessarily just to focusing on making life fair. What you do not want to end up with is very accurate data from our fleet, and very bad data from everybody else, because you know what the consequence of that is. You end up penalising those that provide you with perfect information and those that do not provide you with information get off.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Q Moving slightly off the Bill—I am sure the Chair will forgive me as it is connected to the environment—we see birds gathering to migrate across the globe, but we do not see the same movement of fish under the water. What sort of distance do the fish travel as they migrate from place to place? Environmentally, we have believe that the temperature of the water is going to increase, so could that increase in temperature alter where the shoals of fish go? Is that going to affect the fishery?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

The answer to the first part is that it is very species dependent. Species like North sea cod will live in the North sea, the eastern channel and the Skagerrak. They mix quite happily. Species like mackerel, blue whiting and Atlanto-Scandian herring travel over very large distances. Species like eels essentially travel around the globe, starting in the Sargasso sea. We have a lot of data that has been funded by DEFRA, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in its previous role, from tagging things like bluefin tuna. We have a lot of data on migration, so we know roughly where fish are moving.

The issue of climate change has two aspects. One is that, as waters warm, you may see a movement of fish. We have seen northern hake move from the southern waters more northerly into the North sea, which is causing some of our fishermen a problem at the moment, with choke issues. The other aspect is that you may suddenly find species that you have never seen before. We are getting reports of cuttlefish, squid and even jellyfish down in the channel. We are aware, through questioning the public, that there is an Asian market for jellyfish, so perhaps some time in the future there will be a market for UK jellyfish. Who knows? We are looking at that as part of this process; we are not focused just on this year’s or next year’ fishing quotas. It is very much about where we might be in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society)

Q I have a question about the discard prevention scheme: we have heard over the last couple of days from representatives from the fishing fleet itself, who think the system will not work, and from environmental groups, which think there is not enough information on how it will operate. Could you tell us how the scheme will be implemented? Given that both the environmental lobby and the fishing fleet have concerns, do you think we should put something in the Bill to make it absolutely clear how it will work?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I am a scientist, not a politician or a Minister, so I do not know how it will work. The thinking behind it is that, as we move towards fully implementing the landing obligation next year, there will be some serious issues with choke species, as the Minister mentioned. My understanding of the discard prevention charging scheme is that you have two options: you either have such a scheme or you tie vessels up. As soon as you have fished your quota, you can no longer go to sea because you will not have the ability to discard, which means you will not have the ability to land quota.

The discard prevention scheme is a way of saying to fishermen, “If you have good ideas for selectivity measures or ways of mitigating large amounts of discard and you want to use those measures, if you catch a small amount of over-quota catch, through this scheme you can be charged and incentivised to carry on fishing.” Where the scheme moves from being an incentive to being a penalty is that if you habitually overfish, there must be a point at which it is a penalty to you and you have to stop doing it. Clearly, you would have to manage quota in such a way that the system can cope with that bit of overfishing. But in principle, it is a good idea.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society)

Q One final question, if I may, which follows on from what Mr Grant said. I was in Greenland recently. There are species that have been caught off the coast of Greenland that have never been recorded as having been there before. I presume that as species move north, species from the south move into UK waters. How fleet of foot is DEFRA in terms of whether our fishing fleet should begin to harvest stocks of fish that are not usually there?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

The easiest answer to that is that, in 2003, MAFF created the fisheries science partnership, which is still funded by DEFRA. We asked fishermen for their ideas on specific projects. A lot of the ideas are selectivity measures, but we had a project a few years ago where there was an emerging cuttlefish fishery down in the south-west. The fisheries science partnership was used as a way for the fisherman to work with scientists to see the viability of a cuttlefish industry down there. The problem with cuttlefish is that they come and go. They had a couple of years of quite high catches, but then basically they died away.

There is a strong role for science and industry to work together, because you would not want the industry to gear up for a cuttlefish fishery that will last for only two years. The way we have worked in the past is the way I hope we would work in future. But you are right—if there are emerging new species, there should be a dialogue between the industry and scientists and also Government to see whether you should develop fisheries. In some cases, these will be species that we may not know very much about, a bit like the jellyfish. You would not want to gear up for a high extraction rate of jellyfish without understanding the implications for the ecosystem. There will be other species that feed off jellyfish. If we as humans are removing them from the system, those species will not have access to a food source.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Three more Members have indicated they want to ask a question, and I want to try to get them in before 3 o’clock.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Q Good science and evidence should underpin sustainable fishing, yet at the moment electric pulse fishing is going on in the southern North sea. How can we devise a new framework that stops such practices and ensures that we pursue a precautionary approach to sustainable fisheries management?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

The short answer to that is that DEFRA is funding a project that my colleagues in CEFAS in Lowestoft are undertaking to collect more evidence on the detrimental effects of pulse trawling. It has to be evidence-based. The industry is polarised. There are those who hate it just because they hate it and there are those who have a slightly open mind. The scientific evidence is not conclusive that pulse trawling is bad. There are clearly environmental benefits from it. It certainly reduces fuel consumption and the impact on the seabed, but there are some side effects. Species such as cod and haddock can be damaged by the pulse trawlers.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Q Before the Dutch built a whole new industry on the back of this, should the science not have come to a conclusion as to whether it was a good thing or not?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

It came to a conclusion that there was not a conclusion. ICES held a number of working groups that reviewed the evidence. It was not conclusive that pulse trawling is detrimental because there are positive benefits from having a pulse trawl. There is anecdotal information from our own industry that at certain times of year, you find cod with broken backs. That is certainly so for the Thames estuary, and it could be the impact of pulse trawling. Talking to some of the food producers who deal with chickens, one of the reasons for not electrocuting chickens is that you break their backs when they go into spasms. That is exactly what would happen to a cod; it would also break its own back.

I think the answer to your question is that until you actually have the evidence and it is conclusive that you should ban a method, it is quite difficult to ban it. The Commission has gone out of its way to allow scientists to collect the evidence. The slightly surprising thing is that I was around when ICES gave its original advice, which was for 10 or 12 vessels as a scientific trial. It is now about 100 vessels, and that clearly is not a scientific trial. I think you have to be very clear about the parameters are when you give dispensations for gears.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Q So the new UK fishing policy can be better than the CFP when it comes to sustainable fisheries management.

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I think so. I have forgotten who asked me the question earlier, but if you are going to allow vessels to come into our exclusive economic zone, we can put conditions on their access rights. If we decide we do not like pulse trawling and we have our own evidence base to say that, I assume we can just say, although it would not necessarily ban it, that any vessel with pulse cannot come in.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

Q Dr O’Brien, given your long experience of going to Council, how do you envisage our country being treated during the transition period, when we will effectively have observer status?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I do not know, because I am under the impression that this is my last December Council, as it is for the Minister, unless I have been misinformed.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

Q Given your experience in the past, do you think it will be a problem that we are effectively attending and being consulted with, but are not having direct influence as we have had previously?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

My worry and fear is for the other member states. I have been to a number of Council negotiations, to coastal states negotiations on mackerel, blue whiting, Atlanto-Scandian herring and to EU-Norway negotiations. The other member states look to the UK to provide a lot of the science and the technical arguments. Countries will wave their arms and say, “We do not like the Commission’s proposals”, but when it comes to facts, hard data and evidence, the UK leads the world. We provide the arguments and we sit with the Minister, the presidency and the Commission and we argue our case based on facts and science. Other countries do not do that.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd

Q No wonder they are petitioning for us to stay in. Can I ask you about recreational fishing? We have heard people petitioning that the recreational fishing industry ought to have a more official stakeholder role in future. Is that a view that you have sympathy with? What is your view of the potential value of designating certain fisheries and species for recreational fishing only?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

One of the problems with recreational fishing, which is a disaster waiting to happen, is that when we carry out our bass assessments, we include commercial catches from trawlers and larger vessels and recreational catches, but the only other assessment that I am aware of that ICES carries out with recreational catches is the western Baltic cod. In the case of the western Baltic cod, the recreational catch is far in excess of the commercial fleet.

In future, we need to have a better understanding of recreational fishing. We cannot ignore it, but we have to come up with a policy where you balance commercial and recreational anglers. I would not want to see them being recognised independently of the commercial fisheries, because in a sense, regardless of whether they are selling their catch, they are competing with a commercial fishery. As I say, for the western Baltic cod, the catches of the recreational anglers are far in excess of the commercial fleet. The CFP has tried to constrain the commercial fleet—

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Q On the science, one of the major frustrations—I was going to use the word “criticisms”, but that is too strong—I hear from fishermen is that the science tends to be at least two years old by the time it is actually applied, and they are seeing more fish in their nets or in the water than they are told to expect. Is there any way we can make the science more current, or is there anything we can do in the future to help with that situation?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

Our Minister will know, because one of the first questions that every new Minister gets is, “Why are your scientists using data that is out of date?”. The reality is that, this year—2018—when we carried out our assessments, we had landings data only up to 2017. That is just a fact of life; we will not know the landings for this year until the end of the year. We have survey information, so when we predict next year’s quotas, we are doing that based on 2017 landings data and survey information that we have from this year, so that is where our two-year window comes from.

In terms of doing something that is more reactive, there are issues around juveniles. Certainly in Norwegian waters, they have real-time closures that are almost instantaneous—certainly within 24 hours. In the past, if fishermen found aggregations of very small fish, they would have fished them and dumped them, but now if they fish them they will have to land them, which will come off their quota. The sad thing is that by killing those fish, they are then not there to reproduce into the future to rebuild spawning stocks.

On the assessments, it is a fact of life that, essentially, they will be two years out of date in terms of the landings data, but we will have current information from research vessels and from fishermen. In terms of management, it would be a more adaptive and proactive management where you could keep an eye on what is going on in the sea and within our waters, in terms of whether you are seeing aggregations of juvenile fish or lots of older fish that are aggregating in certain areas and being targeted by vessels. You would want to have a more adaptive management framework—certainly more adaptive than we have with the common fisheries policy.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Q Do you think the Bill creates an opportunity to do that?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

I think it does, yes. As I say, it goes hand-in-hand with the 25-year environment plan that you have an ecosystem approach to fisheries management. We are in the process of defining what that actually means, but it is certainly not single species quotas; it is mixed fisheries and multi-species.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

We are in the last minute.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q I have a quick question. We have heard some representations that we should make the MSY commitment more rigid in the Bill. If the price of getting an agreement with Norway is showing some understanding for their other scientific metrics, is it better to show that flexibility or to walk away and let everyone unilaterally set their own quota?

Dr Carl O'Brien:

No, I think it is better to be flexible. I came into fisheries in the mid-’90s when exploitation rates were horrendous—cod stocks were being fished to fishing mortalities of 0.8; we are now down to levels of 0.4 or 0.3. We should still have that flexibility when we deal with Norway. I also think that it has to be an international negotiation. The UK cannot go it alone.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

On behalf of the Committee, Dr O’Brien, I am grateful for your evidence today. We discharge you and invite our next witnesses to the table.