“The last five or six years we’ve really begun to see the anglers become more engaged” said an ICES scientist at a workshop in Brussels last month.
Three representatives of the European Anglers Alliance (EAA) had just introduced themselves and were there to learn more about the scientific advice that ICES (the International Council for Exploration of the Seas) provides and on which the EU and fisheries managers base decisions on how fish stocks should be managed.
The presence of three anglers at a workshop such as this is down to the last review of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2002 and the formation of the Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) on all of which EAA has some kind of representation. While the formation of the RACs has not been any kind of panacea it was the RACs who had given us the opportunity to be there and were paying for the three of us, and other NGOs, to attend this workshop and our presence within European fisheries management is clearly now beginning to be noticed – by the scientific community at least.
ICES scientific advice papers are, at first glance, impenetrable and could be misinterpreted as actively trying to confuse and put off all but the most knowledgeable fisheries scientists.
Over the course of the following two days the two ICES scientists leading the course did an excellent job in allowing us to understand just a fraction of what was put before us. We were asked to challenge the advice based on the evidence put before us and by the end of the two days groups of individuals who had never met before were putting forward rational, coherent and evidence-based arguments about examples of ICES advice.
Scientific evidence is never going to be perfect, especially in fisheries, and the quality of the data and evidence that is available to base scientific advice on varies wildly. Some traditionally commercially important stocks have been studied extensively while virtually nothing may be known about other deep sea species, for instance.
Remember also that this is only advice. Those asking for it are not obliged to act on it and regrettably the interference of politics means this is more often than not the case.
Last month’s annual round of December negotiations, which sets fishing opportunities for 2013, saw the Council of Ministers do yet another round of political deals which resulted in scientific advice on total allowable catches (TACs) being ignored for a number of species – albeit fewer than last year.
Would the answer be more rigorous scientific evidence that politicians couldn’t continue to ignore? That would help but how much evidence is enough evidence? We’ve seen the recommended Marine Conservation Zones in England be whittled down to 31 for consultation out of a possible 127 put forward – based on a lack of evidence to support them. In addition to which, where on earth would the money come to gather more evidence on more species? The EU is hardly in a position to be throwing more cash for fisheries research surveys when the Euro is only just hanging together by a thread.
It seems to me that there’s not much point asking for advice – and paying for it – if you then choose to ignore it because it doesn’t fit in with your political objectives.