The European Fisheries Control Regulation is being revamped. Several recent reports, including from the European Court of Auditors, have drawn attention to the inadequacy of fishery controls in place for the needs of the CFP.

A European Commission proposal to amend the Control Regulation is before the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. Wheels turn slowly in Europe however, and there is a strong likelihood of delays due to European Parliamentary elections in May and renewal of the European Commission in September.

There is likely also to be a new Parliament, a new Fisheries Commissioner and a reshuffle of posts in DG Mare before much progress is made on the file.

Be that as it may, the fishing sector can expect a new regulation by early 2021 that must be applied two years after the date of its entry into force and may take us well into 2023.

The sector therefore has roughly five years to prepare itself for the revolution that is envisaged for vessel monitoring and catch reporting.

According to DG Mare, this should see an end to paper. A key problem with paper reporting is the huge amount of work it generates for the control authorities.

Mandatory tracking system
The electronic revolution in catch reporting will particularly affect the small-scale (SSF) under 12 metre vessel fleet. The EC proposal specifies that ‘all vessels including those below 12 metres length must have a tracking system’ and that ‘all fishing vessels below 12 metres must report their catches electronically.’

The proposal stresses that ‘for vessels 12 metres in length it is now possible to use mobile devices which are less expensive and easy to use’ and that ‘any additional burden for small operators (small-scale fishermen) will be avoided by the introduction of easy and cost-effective reporting systems for fishery data, taking advantage of affordable and widely available mobile phones technologies.’

While the under 12 metre passive gear sector makes up over 80% of the fleet by numbers and may account for up to 50% of the fishing effort in terms of days at sea, the SSF fleet only contributes 6% by weight and 12% by value of the total EU catch.

In some countries, for example the Netherlands, it only accounts for 1% of national landings. This raises the question as to why so much emphasis is being put on electronic monitoring and catch reporting in the small-scale fleet. Is a sledge hammer being used to crack a nut?

While this may be a valid question, digital technologies do provide an opportunity for the SSF to operate their businesses more efficiently, to plan their fishing trips more strategically, to market their catches more effectively and to engage more meaningfully in fisheries management.
In short, digital technology provides a huge opportunity for the small-scale fleet that should be grabbed with both hands.

Digital tools
In early December, in cooperation with Member States, DG Mare organised a workshop: ‘Digital Tools for Small Scale Fisheries’ to take a closer look at current initiatives on electronic monitoring and catch reporting. The three sessions covered electronic monitoring, digital tools for catch reporting and the use of EMFF as an EU funding mechanism.

The new EC proposal for EMFF post 2020, also before the European Parliament and Council, highlights that ‘certain obligations foreseen by the revision of the Control Regulation justify a specific support from the EMFF’ including, ‘the compulsory vessel tracking and electronic reporting systems in the case of small-scale coastal fishing vessels, and the compulsory remote electronic monitoring systems.’

The 16 presentations made at the December DG Mare workshop and the subsequent discussions, highlighted that the ‘brave new world’ of catch reporting is not just waiting in the wings but has been around for several years.

Technological solutions, including voice recognition, artificial intelligence, machine learning and drones (underwater and airborne) are already out there.

That said, however effective and easy-to-use new mobile technologies may be, unless there is an effective application programming interface (API) between the mobile technology and the server logging the catch data, together with the required infrastructure to actually handle the data flows in the first place, then the Regulation is going to be more of a road block than a route map for effective and efficient fisheries management in Europe.

In this regard, the interconnected issues of data protection and privacy are a cause for concern, especially CCTV footage, which is a major element in the new Control Regulation but not only in relation to implementing the landing obligation.

Data accuracy
Several of the presentations highlighted that automated systems of vessel monitoring, particularly when using active gears, can provide insights into vessel activity.

Providing, as they do, data on position, speed and direction of a particular vessel and changes logged in speed and direction, may indicate when gear is being set, towed and retrieved.

This can then be cross-checked with logbook information to verify the accuracy of data provided on time of setting and retrieving gear, along with location of fishing grounds.
Several participants drew attention to the inherent danger of multi-tasking on small vessels in adverse sea conditions and treacherous currents and tides. There were calls for catch reporting to be done after entry into port, rather than making it obligatory to file catch notifications prior to landing.

The increasing age of small-scale fishers was also raised as an issue of concern. In several cases it was noted that older fishers had difficulties in adapting to computer-based and digital technologies. Related to this was the issue of errors arising in data entry, thereby invalidating catch reports.

Several practitioners drew attention to the need for adequate training and allowing adequate time for fishers to learn how to use and become adept at using digital catch reporting systems. Inadequate training and lack of familiarity with digital tools would lead to errors arising.

Last but not least, a key take-home message was that the data generated by electronic monitoring and catch reporting for control purposes, could also contribute to many other purposes. For example, multi-use of logbook and position fixing data could greatly assist fishery managers, scientists, and the fishers themselves.

Brian O’Riordan, Life Platform