On 11 and 12 December in Brussels, I represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council alongside representatives from the devolved administrations.
On fisheries, the focus of the Council was EU quota negotiations, involving decisions on fishing opportunities for the next year for quota stocks in the North Sea, Atlantic, the English Channel, Irish and Celtic Seas. Fishing opportunities are set under the rules of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, which aims to have all stocks fished at sustainable levels by 2020 at the latest.
Prior to the Council, a number of negotiations take place with third countries, such as EU-Norway, which set fishing opportunities for certain stocks. The EU share of these opportunities are endorsed at the Council in December.
In setting out our objectives for the negotiation, the UK Government strongly supported the overall objective of fishing sustainably, based on the principle of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). We supported the aim to set exploitation rates consistent with MSY and to increase the number of stocks set at MSY compared to last year’s result. We also supported the introduction of a package of measures to further protect European Eels. This package reflected a general concern that urgent action is needed to support recovery of this critically endangered species across its natural range.
As a result of the improving condition of many species, we were able to agree to increase the total allowable catch (TAC) for stocks of importance to the UK. I was, for example, able to secure additional quota for:
- North Sea: cod +10%, haddock +23% and anglerfish +20%
- Irish Sea: cod +376% and haddock +23%
- Eastern Channel: sole +25% and skates and rays +20%
- Bristol Channel: plaice +49% and sole +9%
Total fishing opportunities from this year’s annual negotiations for 2018 are worth around £754 million, which is nearly £50 million more than for 2017. This includes the value of agreements reached in negotiations between the EU and certain third countries such as Norway which were endorsed at Council. The EU-Norway negotiations included agreement on TACs for cod, haddock, saithe, whiting, plaice and herring in the North Sea.
The agreement means that for 2018, 30 stocks of interest to the UK will be fished at or below MSY. This is out of 44 stocks of interest to the UK for which MSY assessments have been made, and is an increase on 2017 At the EU level, the agreement means that 39 of 66 assessed stocks were exploited within MSY.
Where the latest scientific evidence supports it, the UK argued against unnecessary quota cuts proposed by the European Commission. As a result, this secured the same quota as in 2017 for many species, including anglerfish and pollack in the Celtic Sea and saithe in waters to the west of Scotland.
Challenges remain in areas like the Celtic sea and on important species such as bass and megrim in the South West, where action is necessary to cut fishing mortality in order to allow these stocks to recover. I was disappointed that we were unable to mitigate a reduction in TAC for Nephrops in the West of Scotland which will concern small vessels working on the west coast. Where necessary, I argued against setting a total allowable catch (TAC) to zero because it would not reduce fishing mortality and would set an unworkable precedent for when such stocks come under the landing obligation. Instead I secured bycatch quotas for whiting in the Irish Sea and West of Scotland, and plaice in the Celtic Sea. The UK worked hard to secure an agreement that strikes the right balance for both our marine environment and coastal communities.
Further restrictions on commercial and recreational bass fishing were agreed. The UK specifically pressed for and secured the removal of a proposed ban on bass angling “catch and release” activity. We also helped ensure the agreement includes a specific undertaking for a review that would consider the scope to allow landings of bass in recreational fisheries in 2018, once the scientific evaluation method for the stock is updated by the end of March.
Finally, proportionate quota uplifts were agreed for demersal stocks subject to the landing obligation in 2018.
The agricultural focus of the Council was a Commission communiqué entitled the ‘Future of Food and Farming’, which prompted the first Council discussion on the Common Agricultural Policy post 2020. The communiqué highlighted the importance of improving the contribution of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) towards environmental and sustainability goals, and proposed greater member state subsidiarity. In response, I outlined that whilst the future CAP would not apply to the UK, I hoped that the UK and EU could continue to share and learn from each other in meeting what will inevitably be shared challenges. In particular, I noted the potential benefits in terms of simplification as a result of moving to a more outcome based approach with increased subsidiarity.
Seven further items were discussed under ‘any other business’:
- the European Commission informed Council of the outcomes of the ‘Modern biotechnologies in agriculture’ conference held in Brussels on 28 September 2017
- the Czech delegation informed Council of the outcome of the high-level conference on African Swine Fever held in Prague on 8-9 November 2017
- the Danish delegation suggested measures to tackle African Swine Fever to the Council
- the Slovak delegation presented to Council on ‘Tackling Unfair Trading Practices with a view to achieving a more balanced Food Supply Chain and strengthening farmers’ position’
- the European Commission informed Council about the stakeholder conference on the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and its future: “Beyond 2020: Supporting Europe’s coastal states communities”
- the Spanish delegation informed Council about implementation of the landing obligation, choke species risk in January 2019
- the European Commission presented the outcome of the ‘Our Ocean 2017’ conference held in Malta on 5-6 October 2017.