"Fisheries Science - Breaking the Ice"

A Report on the ANIFPO Workshop held in Kilkeel on Friday, 5 September 2003

By Alan McCulla, ANIFPO

Decisions taken over many years and culminating in the well documented decisions made at last December's EU Fisheries Council have contributed to relations between fishermen and fisheries scientists being at an all time low. This is certainly the case in the Irish Sea and in particular Northern Ireland, where scientific staff were invited to leave the ports in February as a protest against deep quota reductions, despite four years of sea area closures all in the name of "rebuilding" the Cod stock.

Earlier this year, in an attempt to move the situation forward the Northern Ireland based Anglo-North Irish FPO hired the independent Icelandic fisheries scientist Jon Kristjansson and asked him to review the main commercial fish stocks in the Irish Sea, in particular Cod and Haddock.

At the beginning of the summer Mr. Kristjansson spent a few weeks interviewing and working alongside fishermen from around the Irish Sea and from his base in Kilkeel he examined the orthodox science, as prescribed by ICES. In order to achieve a balanced view he also spoke with officials and fisheries scientists from the Government's Fisheries Division in Belfast. From the outset the remit he was given by ANIFPO was to tell the truth as he seen it. ANIFPO's directors recognised the risk in this. He could either agree with the pessimistic opinion of ICES or come up with a radically different opinion. Either way, ANIFPO considered they had no choice. There was no alternative.

The first phase of the project culminated on Friday, 5 September 2003 when Jon Kristjansson was joined at a workshop in Kilkeel organised by ANIFPO by Dr. Rick Officer from Ireland's Marine Institute, Sigurjon Thordarson, a Member of the Icelandic Parliament and Mr. Jorgen Niclasen, a Member of the Faeroese Parliament and the Faeroe's former Fisheries Minister.

Preparation for the workshop proved to be very interesting in itself. Originally Dr. Mike Armstrong from DARD Aquatic Sciences in Belfast, the UK fisheries scientist who is most often quoted with regard to Irish Sea demersal fish stocks, had been invited to present the orthodox ICES opinion, but he politely refused, sighting previous adverse experience with local fishermen as the main reason for his absence. Amongst the fishermen this has obviously further undermined the credibility of the Northern Irish based fisheries scientists as they now appear to lack even the confidence in their own advice to present it at the workshop in their own back yard.

However, ANIFPO were relieved and honoured when Dr. Rick Officer from the Marine Institute in the Republic of Ireland accepted their invitation to make the orthodox presentation.

Prior to the workshop several participants were approached by the "ICES Mafia", as they were described by one fishermen's representative, and attempts were made to dissuade them from taking part in or attending the event. This tied in with attempts to discredit and undermine Mr. Kristjansson's reputation long before the Kilkeel workshop and indeed in the run up to the event telephone calls were even received by fishermen's representatives from known individuals attempting to pour scorn upon Mr. Kristjansson.

Given their previous calls to industry for a credible alternative to the orthodox science invitations to the workshop were sent to the UK's Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw MP, Scotland's Minister Ross Finnie MSP, Northern Ireland Minister Ian Pearson MP and the Republic of Ireland's Minister Dermot Ahern TD. Unfortunately, all of the Ministers proved to be too busy to make it to Kilkeel and while a number of officials and fisheries scientists from Belfast and Dublin made it, one representative from DEFRA was England and Scotland's official contribution to the workshop. Consequently the question being asked by many attending the workshop was; are the Fisheries Ministers genuinely interested in hearing any alternative to the ICES advice?

Thankfully, the "ICES Mafia" did not get it all their way and as already mentioned the Fisheries Departments in Belfast and Dublin were well represented in Kilkeel, as were local politicians including Iris Robinson MP. Industry representatives included Barrie Deas, NFFO, Alex Smith, SFF, Jim Portus, SWFPO, Tom Watson, Fleetwood FPO and Mark Dougal, NESFO from the UK, as well as Lorcan O'Cinneide, Irish FPO and Mick Walsh, Irish South & East Fishermen's Organisation from Ireland. A number of fishermen from around the Irish Sea took time off to attend the meeting and the Sea Fish Industry Authority were also represented, as were fish processors in the shape of Northern Ireland Seafood. In all, over fifty participants attended the workshop, which was chaired by Dr. Stephen Lockwood.

An Icelandic Perspective

Dr. Lockwood opened proceedings shortly after 11am and the first presentation was given by the Icelandic MP Sigurjon Thordarson. Mr. Thordarson voiced his concerns that the Icelandic fisheries management system was being held up within the EU as an example of best practice, and proceeded to explain that from his perspective this was certainly not the case. He warned against developing a system as existed in Iceland where ITQs reign. This he claimed had ruined many coastal fishing communities.

He pointed out that prior to the introduction of national and ICES inspired fisheries management in Iceland, the total catch by the Icelandic fleet had been 400,000 Tonnes per annum. Since the introduction of fisheries management based on ICES criteria this had fallen to 200,000 Tonnes per annum.

Mr. Thordarson said that he had been surprised by the extremely negative view of the EU and the CFP he had heard from British and Irish fishermen during his trip. Consequently it was clear to him that Iceland should not join the EU until there was a change of course in the EU's fisheries policy and national control of fisheries was restored.

The Orthodox View

While not representing ICES, Dr. Rick Officer, an Australian national working for Ireland' Marine Institute, with possibly the hardest task of the day gave a sterling presentation on the ICES system and the orthodox view of the situation facing the Cod stock in the Irish Sea, which ICES claims to be under similar pressure to most Cod stocks in the north-east Atlantic. He noted at the outset that none of the speakers, including himself were from the EU and hoped this would encourage a fresh approach to the subject.

So far as Irish Sea Cod was concerned, the latest ICES advice up to 2005 predicted that landings would increase, but then fall back. He explained there had been a change in the recruitment regime during the past decade, with generally lower recruitment feeding through to lower spawning stocks. While slightly better recruitment to the Cod stock had been witnessed in the last few years, assumptions based on of recent low recruitments, combined with the high mortality level, led ICES to conclude that the SSB would decline by 2005. However, Dr Officer also admitted to a time lag in the ICES system, stating that if more recruits were allowed to come into the system because of spawning closures, this would not be realised for some time in the size of the spawning stock.

He went onto describe fishing mortality as a "misnomer", pointing out that ICES assumed the same level of natural mortality (20%) for all stocks. While ICES had calculated figures on fishing mortality taking into consideration the effect of technical conservation measures and recent decommissioning schemes, he was forbidden to discuss these until they had been reviewed by ACFM.

Dr. Officer explained some of the problems with the ICES system. While pointing out that the failure to adopt ICES advice on a regular basis had led to even worse advice, he said that the orthodox science described, "WHAT we are seeing and not HOW it came about." He pointed out that what fisheries scientists wanted was to advise on how to increase fishing yields and not decrease them. He said that ICES had a huge workload, but a limited brief and that he would prefer to see "industry scientists" involved in the process, as was the case outside the EU. This would help change the industry perception of decisions being made "behind closed doors".

The role of ACFM was highlighted and Dr. Officer posed the question if others from outside ICES/ACFMshould not be contributing to defining the group's objectives and criteria, which were based solely on science, with precautionary levels set in tight time frames. STECF was the first point in the annual cycle where economics were taken into consideration, but here over 300 stocks had to be examined in a week. This led to a situation where the European Commission was the only body proposing management plans in the shape of TAC proposals that were discussed at the December fisheries Council, where success was measured "by reductions in proposed TAC cuts."

In describing the annual cycle that leads to decisions on TACs and quota allocations, he confirmed that data collection (port collection, surveys, logbook returns) was the foundation of stock assessment, but because the ICES agenda was now so prominent in the agenda of national marine institutes this had relegated some national needs, including how to involve industry in the process. He explained that in the Republic of Ireland the Marine Institute shared port facilities with the fishing industry, had staff based in each port and arranged collaborative projects with the industry and surveys on board commercial fishing vessels. On this latter point he expressed some concern that with the delivery of Ireland's new research vessel "Celtic Explorer", that the commercial work could take second place and therefore it was important that fishermen were involved in the design of all the research vessel's surveys. The danger was that "the orthodox science could go off the rails without industry involvement."

Overall from his perspective Dr. Officer described a system, which had "a limited suite of outputs in a very descriptive way", with little input from the stakeholders. The question was how we could move forward? We could "Kill the Science" by employing alternative science, "Kill the System" by withdrawing from the CFP, or "Change the System".

In summing up Dr. Officer explained that ICES understood that change was needed. Lessons had to be learned from successful management regimes elsewhere. There needed to be stakeholder involvement and stakeholder commitment to the outcome. There had to be a sound scientific foundation, while the criteria and objectives of the science had to be evaluated. He acknowledged the weaknesses in the ICES assessments and said that no fisheries scientist could deny these weaknesses. The big question was how these weaknesses impacted upon the interpretation of stock assessments. A proper FISHERIES management system had to be adopted and based on sea areas that were not too big . He suggested that the proposed Regional Advisory Councils offered an opportunity to take these proposals forward.

The Alternative Opinion

The independent Icelandic Marine Scientist Jon Kristjansson started by saying that what he aimed to do was challenge the conventional, mathematical approach to management with a more biological approach. He suggested that for decades over fishing had been used as an excuse to introduce firstly fisheries limits and then so called fisheries management. He presented graphs that showed the catch of North Atlantic Cod since the beginning of the 20th Century. Some 20 years after the ICES inspired fisheries management had been introduced the catch was now 64% of the pre-management figures, despite initial promises of more fish in the future. The Faeroese Cod fishery was given as an example where a forced closure (the Second World War) had not resulted in increased Cod fishing opportunities after the war. In fact he claimed the fish had been lost and the fishery did not return to it's high pre-war levels.

He showed the oscillations or natural cycle that Cod and other fish stocks throughout the North Atlantic followed around a period of 8-12 years or two life spans in the case of Cod. In 1993 an international conference that had been convened to explain these oscillations failed to provide an answer and this had triggered his investigations into the matter.

What he discovered was that all stocks had "an upper carrying capacity". When there were sufficient adults in the stock there was no need for new recruitment. Fish stocks themselves adjusted to environmental conditions, of which fishing was one. His evidence also suggested that when the size of the Cod stock was high, there was a lot of competition for a limited supply of food and this resulted in low growth rates. Recruitment to the fisheries was in phase with the growth rate i.e. availability of food. ICES own data showed that commercial fisheries around Faeroes (and elsewhere) had little impact when the stock was increasing, so why attempt to control the size of the stock by controlling the fishery, as Cod and other fish always adjusted to the environment they were faced with.

"If fishing pressure does not restrain the growth of the stocks, how much can it impact on a reducing stock?" he said.

Dealing with the Irish Sea Cod fishery, Mr. Kristjansson showed similar oscillations using the most recent ICES figures and pointed out that it was wrong to assume a linear relationship between the size of the spawning stock and recruitment to the stock. His graphs showed that when the spawning stock was high, there was low recruitment to the stock and vice-versa. This was evidence of the upper carrying capacity of the stock. As the older fish died off, then room for new recruits was created and so the cycle continued. However, so far as the ICES advice was concerned these oscillations had "gone bananas" when their advice and the EC's fisheries management regime started to impact in the early 1990s. The assumption a large spawning stock was needed to encourage good recruitment was doubtful. In fact Mr. Kristjansson pointed out that the growth rate in a fishery was the key factor, rather than recruitment. "Its not the capital in the bank that's of interest, but rather the interest rate. No interest rate, big capital = no return." He determined that the growth rate in a fishery should determine management advice and not recruitment.

He went onto sight the "grave mismatch" between the fishermen's catch observations and the data used in the ICES models. Samples of the catch he had taken during a fishing trip in the Irish Sea in June showed that Haddock were growing fast, while younger Cod were growing slower than older Cod. If fishing pressure on the Irish Sea Cod stock was high then the growth rates should have been the opposite. He stated that Haddock grow fast and then their growth levels out. They also have a high spawning mortality and need high fishing pressure otherwise they overpopulate an area, run out of food, begin to starve and in effect self- destruct. This rang a bell with those present who were particularly interested in the Haddock stocks in the North and Irish Seas.

Mr. Kristjansson returned to deal with the age of the Cod stock and explained how the research vessel surveys apportioned age classes in the fishery. This was then translated into the actual stock size by scaling it up using the recorded and observed landings. The October 2002 survey conducted by the DARD research vessel "Lough Foyle" had captured no Cod older than 3 years and in their March 2003 survey there were few "old" fish. Yet during the commercial trip in June there were only fish older than 3 years old.

DARD had sought to explain this by suggesting that by October the larger fish had moved away from the spawning grounds and were not caught. However, Mr. Kristjansson pointed out that the trawl used by the "Lough Foyle" was a bottom-trawl, capturing fish only 3-4 meters of the bottom. The semi-pelagic trawl used by the fishermen, while inefficient at capturing fish (he estimated that only 20% of the fish seen on the echo-sounder ended up in the cod-end), was capturing fish 25 meters off the bottom. The larger Cod were up in the water column. Video evidence showed they were feeding on Herring.

Mr. Kristjansson stated that the "Lough Foyle" survey gave an inaccurate measurement of the age structure in the Irish Sea Cod fishery, which created an impression of over fishing. This combined with fishermen's observations ended up in ICES' predictions of small stock sizes. He homed in on the assumed figure of 20% used by ICES for natural mortality and sighted evidence from Canada which suggested a natural mortality rate of between 40% and 60% with Cod in the 4+ age group, and between 60% and 80% in the age 6+ age group. This in a fishery where there was a total moratorium!

In summarising, Jon Kristjansson claimed that the "Lough Foyle" surveys (and probably other similar surveys) did not reflect the age structure of the fishery. Natural mortality was underestimated, fishing mortality was over estimated and the catch was underestimated. The conclusion was that all the stock parameters used by ICES to assess Irish Sea Cod were wrong and as a result the management had become useless, even IF the theory behind the assessment was correct.

He ended his presentation with a short video clip of his trip on board the Kilkeel based semi-pelagic trawler "Sparkling Sea", highlighting the large meshes in the mouth of the net and the catch of "old" fish.

Living with Nature

Ending the morning session, Jorgen Niclasen explained the Faeroese fisheries management regime with a talk entitled "Live with Nature - where nature is allowed to control people." Mr. Niclasen had been the Faeroe's Fisheries Minister for four years until January 2003. He remained a member of the Faeroes Parliament and stressed that he had no economic links with the Faeroese fishing industry. He pointed out that fish accounted for 99.5% of the Faeroes total exports, so it was vital that they get fisheries management right. Like Sigurjon Thordarson, he explained that there was one reason the Faeroes remained outside the EU - it's fisheries policy. Again, he felt the Faeroes would only join the EU if fisheries management was devolved to the nation states.

He pointed out that in such a fisheries dependent nation that fisheries policy could not only be about science and calculations, but also about the people, which he felt was the most important part of the policy.

Mr. Niclasen gave a brief history of the Faeroes fisheries, explaining that when the 200 mile fisheries limits were introduced the Faeroes fleet had in effect been forced to return to home waters. However, because fisheries go up and down in each location, deals with other countries had been made allowing Faeroese vessels to fish elsewhere. In 1994 the Faeroes introduced a quota system to their fisheries, but this proved to be a disaster for a variety of reasons and in 1996 an effort based scheme was introduced, which was devised jointly by the fishermen and fisheries scientists. Mr. Niclasen said that this had been based on the theory that it was better to control the inputs (fishing effort), than the outputs (quota).

The effort system included days at sea and area closures (spawning and juvenile area closures and other closures aimed at preventing gear conflict). Juvenile closures were introduced with immediate effect for initial periods of 14 days when catches comprised mainly of juvenile fish were taken. The days at sea system rewarded vessels that fished outside Faeroese coastal waters for alternative species with one day equating to three days in these areas. To calculate the original effort allocation data had been used from ten years previously. The days themselves were transferable between vessels over 15 Tonnes in the same gear group and depended upon vessel size.

Disadvantages had been with the monitoring of days and closures, which had led to the introduction of satellite monitoring systems in March of this year and other technical controls. The advantages were no discards, no high-grading and no re-naming of species, all of which led to reliable and qualified catch statistics. With no quotas, there was no reason for other than perfect statistics.

But most importantly said Mr. Niclasen, the system had the respect of everyone involved in it. "A system which no one accepts will be disaster and will never work." he said.

He agreed with Jon Kristjansson that fisheries followed a natural cycle, going up and down. So far as the Faeroese fishery was concerned, the fishery had peaked and Mr. Niclasen predicted that it would now go down.

He then explained his own experience with ICES advice.

Following the introduction of the effort based system in 1996, ICES had recommended a cut of 25% - the Faeroese Government had applied a 12.5% reduction.

In 1997 ICES recommended a cut of 25% - the Faeroese Government had applied a 5% reduction.

In 1998 ICES recommended a cut of 25% - the Faeroese Government applied no cut.

Given the failure to take up their advice Mr. Niclasen had thought that in 1999 ICES would recommend a cut of between 40% and 50%. Instead ICES recommended a cut of, 25%. The Faeroes applied no cut.

In 2000 ICES recommended a cut of 25% - the Faeroese Government applied no cut.

In 2001 ICES recommended a cut of 25%. After seeking the advice of Jon Kristjansson, the Faeroes applied a 1% cut.

In 2002 ICES recommended a cut of 25% - the Faeroes applied a cut of 2%.

Mr. Niclasen explained that because the Faeroes had failed to follow the ICES advice, then if ICES' theories were correct all of the fish in Faeroese waters should have been dead, but what had ICES said in 2003? The stocks of Cod, Haddock and Saithe were all above the precautionary levels!

Jorgen Niclasen exclaimed that for four years as Fisheries Minister he had had to cope with advice from ICES that was either wrong or with which they were constantly changing their minds. On five occasions they had applied more effort than what ICES had advised and each time the stocks increased. Only on one occasion had they fished Haddock less than what ICES had advised and the result was a drop in the spawning stock. When they had fished less than the ICES advice the stock had gone down and when they had fished more than the ICES advice the stocks had gone up. Why and how they did not know.

Again, the evidence from the Faeroes confirmed Mr. Kristjansson's theory that a high spawning stock equalled low recruitment and vice versa. After following his advice in 2001, the Faeroese catch had been 106,000 Tonnes, not the 62,000 Tonnes predicted by ICES. Such a result was vital for the country. ICES' advice would have resulted in a 50% loss of income. Between 2000 and 2002 the spawning stocks of Cod, Haddock and Saithe had increased from a total of 164,000 Tonnes to 254,000 Tonnes, despite ICES' advice that they were over fishing.

Concluding, Mr. Niclasen stated that to control a system in nature you needed:

1. Acceptance by the people inside the system.

2. Reliable and qualifiable statistics and

3. Immediate response to changes in nature.

This he felt was best achieved by the effort system.

Questions and Answers.

Following lunch (Irish Sea Haddock and chips), Dr. Lockwood chaired the question and answer session and asked the audience to challenge the speakers, in particular the alternative view as represented by Jon Kristjansson. At the outset it was Dr. Officer who sought to defend the orthodox science against a series of probing questions, but he in turn challenged Jon Kristjansson's alternative science.

However, Mr. Kristjansson pointed out that as a scientist, he was looking to expand his knowledge. If he was wrong he wanted to know about it, but he wanted a proper debate in the public, not in private or even through the pages of fishing journals where an immediate response was not available.

On behalf of ANIFPO who organised the workshop, Alan McCulla said that the day had been organised with two objectives in mind, which was to stimulate thinking and debate on the alternative science. He felt this had been achieved and it was now obvious this alternative theory had to be discussed further. "We have proved to many sceptics that we can organise and hold a successful workshop where the orthodox and alternative opinions are given an equal say. The proof of the respective opinions is there for everyone to see" said Mr. McCulla.

"The fact is that despite the much vaunted review of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, it continues to be a system that has failed to protect fish stocks or sustain Europe's fishing industry. The evidence against the CFP and ICES is loud and clear. Jon Kristjansson has provided advice that has worked in the Faeroes and should work elsewhere. The example from the Faeroes proves this. People should not focus on the fact they operate an effort system, but rather the fact they have a system that is accepted by everyone involved, most importantly the fishermen and has been a success."

In conclusion there were several important issues emerging from the workshop in Kilkeel.

* Iceland and the Faeroe Islands two countries whose economies depend to a great extent on their fishing industries refuse to join the EU unless they get assurances they will be allowed to manage their own fisheries and

* Since the Faeroes ditched the ICES advice in 1998 and followed the alternative approach fish stocks have undergone a dramatic improvement and in tandem the fishing industry has gone from strength to strength.

It is clear that all of the speakers in Kilkeel had important messages.

1. It maybe an institution with 100 years of experience, but ICES is in danger of becoming a dinosaur if it does not urgently and radically review the way it does business. Practically the whole ICES scientific agenda seems to be driven by one goal, driven by the EC, which is to carry out assessments and churn out advice for the EC (and others) every year on 300+ stocks.

2. As has been said so many times before, fishermen, fisheries scientists and Government officials need to work together in order to create a successful fisheries management regime that will provide dividends for all involved.

3. Serious and careful consideration must be given to the alternative approach to fisheries science as advocated by Jon Kristjansson and others. The Faeroe Islands have shown that the alternative does work. Europe ignores this at it's peril.

Initial reaction following the workshop has been very positive, but as Alan McCulla stated this was only a beginning. "It is obvious that Jon Kristjansson and Jorgen Niclasen have a very important message, which needs to be heard by all those in the UK, Ireland and beyond who are interested in promoting a credible fisheries management policy. ANIFPO intends with our industry colleagues to promote this message and both Mr. Kristjansson and Mr. Niclasen have publicly stated that they will make themselves available to repeat this workshop. We would call upon our colleagues in the UK and Ireland to press our Fisheries Ministers, officials and chief fisheries scientists to meet with these gentlemen, listen and think about what they have to say and criticise it if appropriate. We are not afraid of the challenge and we will not make this personal, but we want our science, the fishermen's science, to be criticised in a constructive and credible fashion. It is up to the Ministers and their civil servants to take up this challenge. The question is will they? convene meetings with urgently in order that their members