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The Common Fisheries Policy - June 2013

Ian Hudghton MEP

At approximately 3.30am on 30th May 2013 a deal was struck between the European Parliament and the Irish Presidency of the Council, representing the 27 EU member states, on the way forward for CFP reform.

The deal was historic in a number of ways.  Agreement on a discard ban means that fishermen will no longer be forced to throw dead fish back into the sea.  The obscenity of discards has rightly caused outrage amongst the public in recent times - but those involved in the industry have resented the issue for decades.  Fishermen don't gain anything by throwing fish over the side - but the rules of the CFP have forced them to do so.

The new provisions allowing for progress towards greater regional decision-making mark a move away from the one-size-fits-all centralised approach that has characterised EU fisheries policy from the outset.  The final deal was a compromise which didn't go as far as some would have liked - but it will nevertheless afford individual fishing nations some degree of flexibility which in turn will allow for more responsive regulations.

And the deal was the first time that the European Parliament has had a meaningful legislative role in constructing the CFP.  I well remember the last reform a decade ago when, after months of debate in Parliament, the then Fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler (from that well known fishing nation of Austria!) stood in the plenary and recited a long list of the amendments which he would be rejecting.  The Parliament's new post-Lisbon powers in matters fish and agri mean that the Council and Commission can no longer sideline the EU's directly elected institution.

Scotland's own experiences of the CFP have been nothing short of disastrous.  The game was up from the start when, according to official documents now in the public domain, the then Westminster government described fishing as "expendable" in the UK's accession negotiations.

The Scottish fishing industry faired little better in subsequent fisheries negotiations - whether in the construction of the basic policy in 1983 (and every decade thereafter) or in the annual quota talks at the end of each year.  A journey around Scotland's coast shows once thriving fishing ports with little or no working boats setting out to sea.  Expendability seemed to become an article of faith.

Yet fishing remains an important, multi-million pound industry which provides thousands of jobs around the country.  In an age of health-consciousness fishing provides a vital element in a well balanced diet; at a time when we are being urged to care for the environment fishing targets a resource which - if properly managed - is entirely renewable.

So will the new CFP mark a turning point in the fortunes of our coastal communities?  In reality much work has still to be done.  The CFP deal will establish the basic structure within which marine resources are harvested but the detailed management plans will come later.  If these are to work it is essential that the Commission fully respects the new regional power mechanisms and allows real decisions to be taken at more local levels in cooperation with the industry.

Will the new deal satisfy the celebrity chefs who have belatedly stumbled upon the issue of discards?  Well, the discard ban has received much publicity - but the key to sustainability lies not in landing every fish caught but in avoiding unwanted catches in the first place.  This will require research and investment into more selective gears which, in turn, will require the industry to be fully involved and not merely dictated to.

And has the Parliament acquitted itself well with its new legislative powers?  It's impossible to say what the outcome would have been under the old consultation procedure but the Parliament has clearly found a voice which the other institutions must listen to.  The negotiations with the Irish Presidency were hard fought and compromises were given and taken by all sides.

So, a work still in progress - but an outlook brighter than it's been for some decades.  Comments have been generally positive all round, from politicians, from the industry and from interested NGOs.  The real work starts now though - and Scotland's politicians have a vital role to play in securing that sustainable future.

Article published in Scotland Europa