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Blog: How Covid–19 is affecting the Fisheries Bill

27th May 2020

By Rebecca Hunter and Tabitha Newell

‘Stimulus packages’ and ‘exit plans’ have been hitting headlines over recent weeks as the UK government works to recover the country from the global health and economic crisis. Running parallel to these headlines is the academic research that emphasises the importance of developing a recovery plan that will not simply support short–term economic gains but will re–build a healthy planet that sustains a long–term, resilient economy in order to safeguard our future.

Dolphin

Image credit: Common Dolphin – Ronald Surgenor

As an island nation with over 300 miles of coastline and 50% of its biodiversity found at sea, Northern Ireland’s fisheries industry will play an important role in the country’s recovery plans. And so too will the laws and policies that govern it.

Prior to the Covid–19 crisis and throughout the lockdown period, the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force has been working through the Nature Matters NI campaign to make the case for crucial amendments to the Fisheries Bill that would secure a world–leading, ecosystems based sustainable fisheries management system. In the last of our series, we look at the impact of the Covid–19 crisis on the progress of the Fisheries Bill and how these vital amendments are more important than ever as we look to build back a better future.

Recap on the Fisheries Bill

The sustainability of commercial fish stocks and fishing communities are inextricably linked to the health of our seas and the wildlife found within it.

In October 2018 the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), introduced a new Fisheries Bill to establish how fishing rights would work post transition from the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and to legitimately provide the UK with the legal power to exercise control of its waters. While the first Fisheries Bill failed to progress beyond Committee Stage in the House of Commons due to the 2019 general election, in January 2020 a new iteration of the Bill was introduced into the House of Lords

The Bill sets out eight ‘Fisheries Objectives’ that aim to build sustainable fisheries management alongside a healthy marine environment. We broadly welcome the high–level objectives of the Fisheries Bill, particularly those around:

  • Sustainability: ensuring fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long term and managed to achieve economic, social and employment benefits
  • Precautionary approach: applying the precautionary approach to management and ensuring that exploitation of stocks restores and maintains populations of harvested species above biomass levels capable of producing MSY ensuring the harvesting of any stock does not exceed its maximum sustainable yield
  • Scientific evidence: fisheries policy authorities work together to collect and share scientific data and the management of fish and aquaculture activities is based on the best available scientific advice

And we were encouraged to see the addition of a new Climate Change objective, which will help fish and aquaculture activities adapt to climate change and minimise any adverse effects of these activities on climate change.

Even though fisheries is a devolved matter, Administrations share key fish stocks. Therefore, fisheries management in Northern Ireland should also be coherent with the rest of the UK and international environmental legislation under the Fisheries Bill’s common framework approach. This presents Northern Ireland with a window of opportunity to revisit the way in which we manage fishing and contribute to the wider health of our seas. However, despite the Bill’s ambition and new additions, we believe it still falls short in delivering a legal commitment to fishing sustainably.

Jewel-Anemone

Image Credit: Jewel anemone – Claire Goodwin

Our seas are under increasing pressure from overfishing, pollution and climate change. Last year, a global UN biodiversity assessment stated that approximately 66% of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions, and a recent analysis of catch and quota records between 2001 and 2020 shows that the United Kingdom landed 1.8m tonnes of fish over levels declared sustainable.

As part of the Fisheries Bill’s Committee Stage, we presented our concerns to the Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee during an Oral Evidence Session in March 2020, where we made a case for the legal ‘teeth’ the Bill needs to achieve its aim:

  • Fisheries Management Plans for all commercially exploited and any other stock which falls below sustainable levels
  • A strong approach to the sustainable management of shared stocks
  • The introduction of Remote Electronic Monitoring with CCTV on any vessel fishing within UK waters

What’s happening now?

Even though these suggested amendments, along with evidence presented by other stakeholders, have been considered and debated by the Committee, the Fisheries Bill is now delayed as the government focuses all resources on the immediate health and economic crisis. At the time of writing, there has been no date given for the Report Stage in Westminster, when the House of Lords will have a further opportunity to examine and debate the Bill.

In Northern Ireland, the AERA Committee are currently developing a report with their recommendations for specific legislation within the Bill that requires Northern Ireland approval. As with Westminster, a date for this report to be taken to the Northern Ireland Assembly has yet to be confirmed.

Opportunity for a sustainable future

The Covid–19 crisis and the consequences of over–exploiting nature has served as a wake–up call for us all. We are currently preparing further evidence and proposals on how Northern Ireland can achieve the high level aims of the Fisheries Bills, and we hope to take these recommendations to future stakeholder workshops on a Joint Fisheries Statement when the crisis is over. We will also continue our call for a Northern Ireland discussion paper that will enable all stakeholders to discuss the best approach for fisheries management; one that benefits our fish stocks and the wider environment they rely on.

As a member of the Greener UK coalition, we are continuing to engage with colleagues throughout the UK and are closely monitoring the evolving parliamentary situation and implications on the marine environment. We believe sustainability must be at the heart of the recovery plans for the environment, local communities and industries to thrive. By investing in the recovery of our seas and restoring the wildlife within our waters, we can secure our future prosperity.

 

More Blogs from Nature Matters NI…

Nature Matters – How Covid–19 is affecting the Environment Bill

Nature Matters – How Covid–19 is affecting the Agriculture Bill

Nature Matters – How Covid–19 is affecting the parliamentary process

Nature Matters – To secure farm incomes, the environment is key

Nature Matters – Calling for change – a better farming future in NI

Nature Matters – Why we need a new farming policy for Northern Ireland

Nature Matters – Public Goods can help keep farmers farming

Nature Matters – Who we are and the importance of protecting the environment in Northern Ireland after Brexit

Making Brexit work for the environment in Northern Ireland

Farmer’s view: A sustainable agricultural system brings huge benefits

Environmentally Friendly Agriculture Policy Proposed in England – but what about Northern Ireland?