Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Implementation of Common Fisheries Policy and the Sustainability of Irish Fisheries: BirdWatch Ireland

3:30 pm

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I welcome Mr. Fintan Kelly, policy officer of BirdWatch Ireland, and thank him for appearing before the committee today. Mr. Kelly requested to address the committee to discuss the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy and the sustainability of Irish fisheries.

Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of a long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask Mr. Kelly to make his opening statement.

Mr. Fintan Kelly:

I thank the members of the joint committee for extending the invitation for me to address them today. I am policy officer with BirdWatch Ireland and have a bachelor's degree in environmental science from NUIG and a master's degree in environmental biology from Utrecht University. I have been working in environmental policy since 2012. In a fisheries context I have been working on the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy for several years. I sit on EU-level stakeholder forums such as the North Western Waters Advisory Council.

The EU’s reformed Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, entered into force in January 2014. The political agreement between the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament reflected the will of EU citizens that European fisheries policy needed radical reform. This new dawn in EU fisheries policy was underpinned by overwhelming evidence and wide consensus that overfishing must end, and that the failure to do so would have grave consequences for the fishing industry, the marine environment and the food supply chain. The announcement marked the culmination of a process which began in 2009 with extensive public consultations.

In practical terms ending overfishing really means that when decision makers like the Commission and fisheries Ministers agree the fishing limits for a given fish stock, the upper limit of fishing is set at a sustainable level advised by the best available scientific advice. Typically, advice on fishing limits is supplied by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, a global organisation of 5,000 scientists from over 690 marine institutes in 20 member countries that develop science and advice to support the sustainable use of the oceans. In an Irish context ICES works in tandem with staff from the Marine Institute to provide scientific advice on the management of fish stocks.

Within the CFP the upper point at which fishing limits must be set is called the maximum sustainable yield, MSY. Maximum sustainable yield is the maximum yield or catch that can be taken from a fish stock over time without depleting the size of the fish population. At this point the population can replace the fish which are taken from the stock. Above this point more fish are removed than can be replaced and the size of the stock reduces over time. This results in a smaller population, which means less fish for fishermen to catch. The fewer fish there are the harder it becomes to find and catch them, reducing the profitability of fishing. If a stock is overfished it may become severely depleted and may even collapse.

The ongoing recovery of sea cod in Irish waters is a positive example of how, when we take positive action to reduce fishing pressure, even severely depleted fish stocks can start to recover. Sea cod in Irish waters has gone from having a catch advice of zero tonnes from 2000 to 2017 to catch advice of 695 tonnes in 2018.

Ending overfishing or ensuring that fishing limits are not greater than the maximum sustainable yield is not an environmental or conservation objective per se. It is a fisheries management and economic objective which will secure the best economic, social and environmental outcomes for fishers and EU citizens. This position is supported by the Irish programme for Government which states that the sea that surrounds our island is our greatest natural resource and that developing the potential of the blue economy will be a priority for the Government. The implementation of the CFP, which the Government has recognised as forward looking and progressive, is seen as being integral to the realisation of this objective. In line with the CFP the Government has committed to, "setting quotas at Maximum Sustainable Yield and on a scientific basis, implementing the obligation to land, and an effective system of Regional decision making."

I will now deal with overfishing in the EU and the December AGRIFISH Council. Within the CFP, Article 2.2 requires that fish stocks are restored to levels that can support the maximum sustainable yield, "by 2015 where possible and, on a progressive, incremental basis at the latest by 2020 for all stocks." The EU has already failed to meet the 2015 deadline and with just over a year remaining before the 2020 deadline it is critical that the Irish Government follows scientific advice in upcoming negotiations.

Every December fisheries Ministers like Ireland’s Minister, Deputy Creed, meet in Brussels to negotiate fishing limits for the north-east Atlantic for the year ahead. According to the New Economics Foundation, NEF, which has analysed December Council decisions between 2001 and 2017, on average seven out of every ten fishing limits set by member states were above the limits advised by scientists. While the percentage by which the levels of total allowable catch, TAC, were set above advice declined throughout this period, the proportion of TACs set above advice did not.

One of the NEF’s conclusions was that "Member States are the main drivers of overfishing, either because they are actively pushing for fishing limits to be set above scientific advice or they are failing to prevent it." In its opinion recurring issues identified within past negotiations which drive overfishing include: a lack of transparency in the negotiations; decision making based on short-termism; effective lobbying from industry; and perverse competition between member states.

During last year’s December Council fisheries Ministers continued to agree fishing limits for 2018 that were above the scientific advice. Of the fishing limits analysed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 44% were set exceeding the scientific advice. This is, however, a reduction from 54% set exceeding advice in 2017 and 57% set exceeding advice in 2016.

Another report commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that while the extent to which fish stocks are being overfished improved between 2013 and 2017, the number of overfished stocks remains too high. This is in line with the findings of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, which found that while stock status has significantly improved in the north-east Atlantic, progress has slowed in the last few years and many stocks remain overfished and-or outside safe biological limits. In its opinion the progress that has been achieved seems too slow to ensure that all stocks will be rebuilt to MSY by 2020.

Based on the NEF’s assessments of EU December Councils between 2001 and 2017, it is clear that Ireland has historically played a negative role in the negotiations. For 2018 Ireland was the country with the highest percentage of fishing quotas in excess of scientific advice. Ireland was involved in decisions that allow fishing at 18% above maximum sustainable yield. The United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed fishing limits at 15%, 8% and 8%, respectively, above advice.

The UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark were the worst offenders in terms of the total tonnage of fishing limits set above advice. According to the NEF, Ministers representing these member states have received the largest quota increases above advice in terms of tonnes and are therefore the most responsible for impeding the transition to sustainable fisheries in the EU.

Ireland has negotiated a fishing quota for 2018 which is over 31,000 tonnes above scientific advice. This now means that Ireland has received a total fishing quota of over 700,000 tonnes above scientific advice since 2001. Ireland now must surely be considered among the worst offenders when it comes to the percentage of fishing limits set above scientific advice, having in the previous two years also ranked worst and joint worst.

As in previous years the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, celebrated the fact that he had been able to secure Ireland’s fishing industry the right to overfish in 2018, stating:

The total €152 million value of the whitefish quotas secured for the Irish fishing fleet amounts to an 8% increase in value from last year and a 3% increase in volume. I am satisfied that this is a good and balanced result overall.

Much of the economic debate relating to Common Fisheries Policy reform has in the past focused on the short-term economic cost of reducing fishing pressure and transitioning to maximum sustainable yield rather than on the economic benefits of reaching MSY. This is clearly apparent in the Government's submissions to the European Commission’s proposals on fishing opportunities over recent years. The Government's economic arguments are based on the sustainability impact assessments prepared by Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM. These assessments only calculate the cost of quota reductions for the year ahead and fail to consider the medium to long term economic gains of achieving MSY. This evidence, according to the New Economics Foundation, is methodologically weak as it omits cost reductions, quota uptake, and price elasticities.

Fish can be one of Ireland's and the EU’s greatest renewable resources if managed correctly. Aside from their innate value as living things and fundamental components of marine ecosystems, fish can provide multiple benefits to society in the form of food, revenue and jobs. Overfishing results in smaller catches, lower revenues and fewer jobs. As the World Bank has put it, “biological overfishing has led to economic overfishing, which creates economic losses.” MSY, from an economic standpoint, must be the goal we strive for if we wish to achieve the point of greatest economic return. Fishing at or below MSY levels which deliver sustainable catches is a precondition to landing more fish. According to the World Bank, globally fisheries accrued an economic loss of about $83 billion in 2012, compared with what could have been generated by managing fisheries in line with scientific advice. From an EU perspective it is estimated that in 2015, by failing to exploit fish stocks below MSY, the EU caused a total loss of 8.6 million tonnes of catch and €7.1 billion in revenues over the previous five-year period.

The economic benefits relative to 2012-2014 of rebuilding EU fish stocks to MSY could provide Ireland with an additional 200,000 tonnes of fish landings annually. This would generate an additional €270 million in earnings, potentially supporting 2,200 new jobs. Based on the Scientific, Technical Economic Committee for Fisheries most recent annual economic assessment of EU fisheries the revenue generated by fisheries in the north-east Atlantic in 2016 was estimated at €2.66 billion, an increase of 8% from 2015, with the Irish fleet generating €265 million. The net profit generated by the EU fleet was estimated at €417 million, an 84% increase on 2015. The recovery of some fish stocks is one important factor in the positive outlook for the sector. In this context the arguments which have been made in the past of the economic cost of transitioning to MSY are less convincing.

The positive outlook for the sector means that there can be no excuses in delaying our legal obligations. The economic benefits of rebuilding fish stocks will accrue even in the short-term due to the increased profitability of greater catches and the reduced costs of catching more abundant stocks. Now is an ideal time to take the steps necessary to achieve compliance with the CFP. The sooner we transition to MSY the sooner we can enjoy the economic benefits. 2018 will be a critical year for the CFP. Given that the 2020 deadline to end overfishing is just over a year away, this year’s upcoming fisheries negotiations will play a critical role in realising the goals of the CFP.

Every two years EU fisheries Ministers negotiate the total allowable catches for deep sea stocks. This November the TACs for 2019 and 2020 will be agreed. In effect, this means that this November's negotiation will be the CFP’s deadline for these stocks. Ireland’s main interest in the November Council is achieving quota for deep sea fish so that we can trade it with France and Spain in exchange for other fish quota. Ireland receives quota for five deep sea species and six different stocks. Of these stocks four have been overfished for many years and one has zero catch advice for 2019-20. Fishing for orange roughy is prohibited since the collapse of the stock in 2002. The Irish fishing industry does not target deep sea fish stocks. The Government needs to set deep sea fishing limits in line with scientific advice in November for 2019 and 2020. The failure to do so will ensure that the EU will fail to meet its 2020 objective to end overfishing a year out from the deadline.

Every year in December EU fisheries Ministers set the TACs for the majority of commercial EU fish species. Last year, 124 TAC decisions were made or confirmed at this meeting. These negotiations are not public; only their outcomes are. This lack of transparency means that Ministers are not on the hook when they ignore scientific advice and give priority to short-term interests that risk the health of fish stocks. The Government must negotiate fishing limits for 2019 which are compatible with achieving the CFP’s 2020 deadline. BirdWatch Ireland asks that the members of the committee raise these concerns with the Minister when he presents the Government's sustainability impact assessment of the EU Commission proposal this November.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I thank Mr. Kelly. My knowledge of this issue was severely lacking until I met him a month or six weeks ago. He has presented a very detailed and comprehensive paper to us. It is very thought-provoking, and he expresses a lot of knowledge of the topic. We thank him for that.

Some of the points made by Mr. Kelly are at odds with what we understood to be the position. I am old enough to remember Mark Clinton and Michael O'Kennedy as Ministers for agriculture. Their job was to come home with the beef, to use a euphemism, and if they did not they were slated at domestic level. It was a triumph if they came home with allowances for increases in catch and potential catches and agreements on the price of milk which might amount to two pence per gallon at the time.

I do not want to misquote Mr. Kelly. Have we ignored well formulated scientific advice over a long period of time? Have we acted contrary to that advice? Have we failed to comply with our legal obligations? We are generally brought before the European Court of Justice, ECJ, if that is the case, or alternatively an infringement procedure of some description is initiated at EU level by the Commission or another body.

Is the witness suggesting that the measures, in the context of economic arguments prepared by BIM which were based on the sustainability impact assessment, are not sufficient or are deficient, and are in fact unbalanced because they fail to take into account the counter-arguments on sustainability the witness has made? He has said that the greater the level of sustainability achieved the better the opportunity for fishermen to harvest more fish and achieve a greater output, resulting in an increased income. I may well be misinterpreting the witness; if I am he can correct me.

Is it the case, as Mr. Kelly has argued, that the Government has breached its commitments on MSY in the CFP? I have no degree of expertise in this area, so I ask Mr. Kelly to forgive me for asking questions he may think are irrelevant or simple. Do I understand it that the MSY is, in effect, a very good management tool that could lead to a significant increase in income for fishermen, as opposed to the current system? While it appears that there has been some improvement in TAC over the last five years, how much more does Mr. Kelly believe can be achieved? What should the Minister do when setting the TAC?

What can the Department do to assess the TACs? Mr. Kelly said November is the critical month and that is why he is here. He is concerned about the lack of transparency in how the TACs are set and the deliberative process in which the Department engages in achieving them. He wants to see how they are formulated in respect of the overall CFP and, in particular, how they relate to the MSY. Am I correct in saying there is a correlation between the two? What questions should we raise with the Minister when he comes before the committee to present the sustainability impact assessment?

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Kelly for his statement. As a nation and an island, how does Ireland compare with other member states on breaches of the maximum sustainable yields? It might be somewhat ironic that a politician is asking this question, but how is it the case that the Minister negotiated an increase with the same body that sets the maximum sustainable yield? On the one hand, this organisation sets the 2020 target, yet our Minister can negotiate an increase in our yield which breaches the aforementioned target. As I said, I accept that a politician is asking the question and perhaps it should be the other way around, but I am interested in Mr. Kelly's opinion as someone who has studied the matter extensively.

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I do not profess to have any degree of expertise in this particular area. As Deputy Penrose said, the Minister attends meetings of the committee every November and is due to attend on 27 November on this matter. As Mr. Kelly rightly pointed out in his detailed presentation, unless there was significant improvement in the quota achieved, it was seen as a defeat, which seems to be completely at odds with what he is saying here and what we were told over time. When the Minister and his officials appear at the end of November, we need to ask clear and specific questions on this issue. Will Mr. Kelly highlight some of them?

Mr. Fintan Kelly:

I am not used to this format but I will try to remember all the questions members asked. Deputy Penrose made a statement relating to the old approach, that is, the highly political approach to negotiations. He used the term, "bringing home the bacon", which is still the predominant approach as far as I can see. Member states, the European Parliament and the Commission collectively worked through CFP reform. There was overwhelming public pressure from EU citizens to see an end to overfishing. The 2015 deadline and the final 2020 deadline to end overfishing were set.

As a result of that initial public pressure, there was an improvement in the situation, with a lower level of overfishing in 2012. Directly after the CFP was agreed, however, there was an increase in the level of overfishing, although this has come down to below the 2012 figures in the past two years. That reflects the role the public played in 2012, the pressure that was put on decision makers to end overfishing and the subsequent fall back into past behaviour. The Minister felt under pressure to deliver the quota for the industry and was probably under pressure from other political parties if he did not deliver that, which was definitely one of the driving factors.

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Would the industry not look for an increase in quotas to maintain sustainability in any event?

Mr. Fintan Kelly:

Having sat with the Minister and representatives from the industry in Clonakilty, and having sat on advisory councils with the industry, I have found that the general approach is to maintain or increase our level of catch. All stakeholders would agree that getting to MSY is beneficial to everyone. While we would say that over the past few years we needed to make progressive incremental gains, when it comes to the accounts being done at the end of the year in November or December, there is a tendency to slip back into that short-termism. The BIM sustainability impact assessment was mentioned. That reflects the predominant approach where BIM will look at the Commission's proposal. The Commission will reflect on the scientific advice that ICES has supplied, which might recommend a decrease in the amount of fish that can be caught for some stocks, depending on the health of the stock, and for others an increase, depending on fluctuations in the population. The Commission will bring forward a proposal which BIM and the Government will consider. The cost of the reductions for the year ahead will then be presented to the Oireachtas committee. There is not a calculation, therefore, of what the benefits will be over a two, five or ten year period if we were to follow the scientific advice.

We have raised this matter with BIM and the Department for a number of years. It is a major oversight and it severely hinders the narrative of the discussion. In my presentation, I tried to steer away from birds or some of the more ecological arguments one might expect from an organisation such as BirdWatch Ireland. I focused on the economics because this should not be a negative outlook. Rather, it is an overwhelmingly positive opportunity for us to grow our blue economy. At this year's SeaFest, I noted the Minister presented the Government's objectives, which, like Food Wise 2025, were focused on increasing the profitability of Ireland's aquaculture sector. We would like to see that kind of approach taken to improving the sustainability of our fisheries or wild fish populations. Based on some of the figures we put forward, there is a potential for an increase of 2,200 jobs in our coastal communities, many of which are in marginal areas without many other opportunities, unfortunately. We feel that perspective should definitely be taken but, unfortunately, it has not been taken.

Some other points were made about the legal obligations and whether I was implying that Ireland is failing to live up to them, which is a serious issue. My point was that based on what we can see from the decisions that are being made, Ireland seems to be playing a particularly negative role. It consistently performs worse than the EU average in the number of stocks with which we are involved that are above scientific advice. Looking at the trajectory of where that leaves us heading towards 2020, it appears we are heading for a situation where, collectively, the member states will not reach the 2020 target. Given Ireland's major role in this development, we should be accountable and that is what I am asking of the Oireachtas joint committee. It should be highlighted with the Minister that the November Council is the 2020 deadline because there will not be another negotiation before 2020. If the Minister suggests we should not follow scientific advice, he should make clear what are the long-term economic arguments for taking that position and what are the political implications for Ireland of coming to the table with the attitude that we will not be legally compliant.

Similarly, in the case of the December Council, the negotiations that will take place in December of this year and again in December 2019 will bring us up to the 2020 deadline. While the deadline may seem to be some time away, there will be only two meetings in Brussels beforehand and considerable progress remains to be made. In recent years, we have met departmental officials and have always made clear that we are sympathetic to the position in which the Minister finds himself. We are not asking for a guillotine approach such as was taken in 2015 when all the stocks were in MSY. We have always argued for a clear plan that makes clear we are heading in the direction of having all stocks in MSY by 2020.

I focused a good deal on setting the fishing limits at the maximum sustainable yield, MSY, but also on being more cautious or even on being more positive at setting them below the MSY. In doing that effectively we would leave more fish in the population and our stocks should increase over time. If our stocks are increasing over time and getting back to historical levels that would have massive positive impacts not only on the ecosystem but on our fisheries.

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Mr. Kelly has given us some food for thought for our discussion with the Minister when we will engage with him at the end of the month. It is a new direction that we have not been brought previously. It is something we will have to take up with the Minister directly. Mr. Kelly said that he has met Department officials on a regular basis. What reaction did he get from them in this respect?

Mr. Fintan Kelly:

Even though I am being highly critical of the Department and the Minister, Deputy Creed, or so it might seem, we have a very positive relationship with the Department. We meet the Department staff in Clonakilty several times a year. We also meet staff in the Marine Institute quarterly. I met the Minister several times last year and I also met him just the other week. The reaction from him and his staff is that they understand what we are asking them to do but they have a different approach. They believe they are getting there incrementally. We believe, based on the evidence, that we are not making the necessary progress and the old habits of the short-termism and the political realities are hindering the progress. There should be much greater focus on the opportunities. If the Department was to come before the Oireachtas committee today and present figures of increased profitability and jobs to the value of just under €300 million for any sector, I believe there would be excitement. Bord Bia would have national campaigns and I am sure booklets would be printed. That is the approach that we believe the Department should take regarding the MSY and the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP.

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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It is something that we will discuss with the Minister in the next few weeks. I thank Mr. Kelly for coming before the committee today. He has given us some very thought provoking information.

As there is no further business, the meeting is adjourned until 3.30 p.m. next Tuesday, 13 November.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.53 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 November 2018.