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New technology may allow regulation by effort rather than quotas

My recent Times column on Britain’s opportunity for fisheries reform post Brexit:


A richly abundant sea fish population is one of the great wonders of the world that my generation has rarely seen. Last week I was lucky enough to be aboard a boat off California, surrounded by five humpback whales, more than 2,000 common dolphins, plus hundreds of sea lions and shearwaters all gorging on anchovies. There is no reason that properly managed British waters could not be as healthy and diverse as this.

Among the few certainties of Brexit, one is that we will need a new, bespoke, British fisheries policy. The prime minister has confirmed that we will be leaving the Common Fisheries Policy. The fishing industry, though a small part of the economy, is highly symbolic, having been cheaply betrayed on entry into the European Union, when we donated to our EU partners the chance to fish a vast sea area.

On leaving, Britain will control not only its 12-mile territorial waters, but also its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. This is a golden opportunity to learn from the management of fisheries around the world and design a system of exploiting our fish that is sustainable, conservationist and profitable.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, is shortly to announce his preference for how we do this. His starting point should be recognition of the failure of the Common Fisheries Policy approach, so that we do not replicate its shortcomings. The European Union takes decisions on how many fish of a particular species can be caught and where, for an entire continent’s waters, usually late at night in Brussels and based on data that are deficient and six months out of date.

The result has been chronic overfishing and a scandalously wasteful discarding of the “wrong” species of fish for which a boat does not have quota, but which it cannot avoid catching. In an attempt to remedy this, the EU is now about to ban discarding by ensuring that quotas count what is caught, rather than just what is landed. The result will be perverse, as recent pilots demonstrated.

This “choke” species problem (in which the first species to hit quota limit stops all fishing for other species) is peculiarly hard to deal with in British waters, where most trawlers will be fishing in a rich diversity of different species: cod, haddock, hake, whiting, prawns and more. It is the reason that Britain may not be able to emulate Iceland, the Falklands and New Zealand in their method of fishery regulation.

They operate the ITQ system, or “individual transferable quotas”. A total sustainable catch is decided on, with scientific advice, and then divided among the fishing fleet according to each vessel’s owned share. That share can be bought or sold, so every participant has skin in the game and vested interest in increasing the overall quota — by fishing responsibly, policing others’ behaviour and detecting pirates.

Such ITQs work well in Iceland and the Falklands. A vital ingredient is rapid reaction to the latest data, shutting down a fishery that is getting overfished and releasing extra quota in one that is richer than expected: no CFP-like waiting for bureaucrats to meet. However, ITQs work poorly in mixed-species areas where boats cannot cleanly catch a quota of one species. They also tend to concentrate ownership of quota in the hands of a few large owners — something that is creating pressure for reform in Iceland at present. Also, Britain effectively already operates a de facto ITQ system in the way it administers its EU quota share.

The alternative method of regulation is “effort-based”. In this system the government would give each vessel a limited number of days at sea, based on an estimate of how much would be caught. As long ago as 2005 Owen Paterson MP, then the shadow fisheries minister, recommended this system after an exhaustive study of fisheries policies around the world. He is again pushing it, as are many fishermen who see it as a way of allowing more operators to remain independent in the industry: good for the economy of ports.

The big environmental organisations are sceptical. They see effort-based regulation as licensing a sort of short-lived free-for-all in which boats dash out to collect as much as they can of whatever species with scant regard to the balance of the ecosystem — a “race to fish”. However, the advance of technology has changed this. With transponders on boats and nets recording depth, temperature and location precisely, it is now possible to track vessels minute by minute.

The “race to fish” can be discouraged by “flexible catch composition” percentages, in which vessels must try to catch a balanced catch composition of species. Instead of having to discard the “wrong” species, vessels could retain the fish in exchange for a loss of time equivalent to the value of the fish. Conversely, vessels could get extra time at sea with conservation credits earned by using more selective gear.

The result would be a balanced harvest of a slice of species. Rather than imposing a bureaucratic, rigid system upon the dynamic marine environment, it would turn fishing crews into self-financed conservation teams, giving continuous data on fish abundance and distribution. Discard-free, the systems would enable Britain to fulfil her international obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while letting large and small owners prosper to the benefit of coastal communities.

I think technology may have now tipped the balance in favour of “days at sea” in the British, mixed-species seas. There is no reason that a fishery cannot be improved by the digital revolution, just as a factory can be. But there is an easy way to find out if I am right: pilots. Mr Gove should commission trials of both ITQs and effort-control in a couple of different fisheries or sea areas during 2018, and see which one works best.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times