Lord Benyon, Minister for Marine Affairs, suggested that for fishermen to thrive the fish must come first in managing our seas at the Coastal Futures conference today.
He said that the government was still failing to stop over-fishing by setting of catch limits in line with scientific advice in annual negotiations with the EU, but ministers and their officials had “a determination to drive a sea-change in sustainability.”
Lord Benyon admitted that the percentage of total allowable catches agreed for this year in line with scientific advice was “heading in the right trajectory but it’s not there yet.”
In the annual negotiations with the EU and Norway, before Christmas it was estimated that around 50 per cent were set above scientific advice, notably for three major populations of cod in British waters. The government’s advisers, Cefas, are shortly to publish an official assessment.
Lord Benyon suggested that to achieve sustainability in fisheries management it might be necessary to change the definition of sustainability which the post-Brexit Fisheries Act uses, which attempts to “balance” the needs of the environment, society and economic development and leads to fish stocks being sacrificed in the short term for the viability of fishing businesses.
Lord Benyon told Coastal Futures:
“We now negotiate with the EU, and with Norway as an independent coastal state. We have to champion our own national priorities to improve sustainable management. We still have to work in the EU to set more stocks in line with scientific advice. The percentage of total allowed catches in line with scientific advice is heading in the right trajectory, but it’s not there yet and we need to follow the proper scientific advice as provided by organisations like Cefas. Our scientific assessment of sustainability of our negotiated catch limits will be published shortly.
“And, perhaps we should challenge ourselves. I would like to put this thought in your head. Our definition of sustainable development is quite old. It comes from something called the Brundtland Commission and it gives the analogy of a three-legged stool, economic, social and environmental in equal measure, holding that stool up. If one of them goes, that’s not ‘sustainable.’ I think we need another analogy. Some people refer to it as the ‘wedding cake.’ You can’t have social and economic growth if you don’t have a strong environmental base to that concept. So perhaps it’s time we challenge ourselves and really look at the basis on which we are talking about sustainability.”
Charles Clover, executive director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “Lord Benyon and his fellow ministers are realising that the post-Brexit Fisheries Act has a major flaw – it is leading to catch limits being granted that are manifestly unsustainable, year on year. The Act and the Joint Fisheries Statement that it created give the wrong signals to officials in negotiations with the EU and Norway. We have a duty to be more ambitious if we want to achieve sustainability, as Lord Benyon says, and the first step is to remove the definition of sustainability used by Defra and replace it with the ‘wedding cake’ definition which is used by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, No 14 of which is about the ocean and sustainability.
“The idea that you can ‘balance’ the needs of the resource with the livelihoods of fishing communities is a nonsense, the fishing industry always loses in the long term if you erode the stocks they are trying to catch, but economics are all about the short-term need to paying the mortgage and hence to trash vulnerable stocks. Balance in current terms means sacrificing fish stocks, forever, for short term gain. It is not real balance at all. That is why Lord Benyon is right and Defra’s definition of sustainability needs to change.”
Green groups tried to make it the prime objective of the Fisheries Act to ensure the sustainability of the resource (as it is in the United States’s fisheries laws). But the government opposed this amendment throughout the passage of the Bill – for reasons ministers admitted came from elsewhere in government and not from good fisheries management practice.