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Councillors’ Role in Sea Fisheries Committees Criticised

Feb 02,2006 SACN


Regulation of inshore fishing by the 12 sea fisheries committees of England and Wales is biased towards the interests of commercial fishermen who have an “elevated status” on them, according to a report that has been recieved by SACN.

Local councillors who hold half the seats on the committees are strongly criticised for backing commercial fishermen.

Although in theory councillors’ involvement might ensure broader interests being taken into account in fisheries management, it says many are themselves current or former participants in the fishing industry which the committees regulate.

Many believed that their first responsibility on the committees was to serve the commercial fishing industry, not the public. 

The report was compiled after a seven-month investigation by an eminent US professor of law.

It says because fishermen on the local authority funded committees can vote on byelaws to manage fishstocks, “there exists a strong possibility that the interests of other stakeholders…will be compromised."

Councillors, therefore, needed to be especially vigilant, the report says referring to commercial fishermen being mainly concerned with maintaining high catch levels in the short term which can be in direct conflict with the public interest in long term sustainability of fish stocks. 

Nearly half (47 per cent) of the councillors believed commercial fishermen were their most important constituency and most said they represented commercial fishermen on the committees.

This seemed to indicate that “many councillors do not see themselves as representatives of the general public, but of their [commercial] fishing constituents." This was inconsistent with the public nature of fisheries and oceans where public participation was important for them to be successfully managed and was not conducive to long-term health of the fisheries.

The report comes as Defra (the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is finalising plans to reform inshore fisheries management which may see changes to the sea fisheries committees, originally set up by parliament in 1888.

It was funded by the British Council and compiled by Professor Josh Eagle, of the school of law at the University of South Carolina, USA.  He spent seven months in the UK in 2004 researching the committees and attended meetings of nine of the 12.

He collected information on councillors through interviews and from detailed written surveys sent to 90 councillors, of whom 42 per cent replied.

"Interestingly, quite a few councillors reported that they were formerly or currently involved in the fishing business,” his report states. Very few of them said the interests of the general public, recreational anglers or seafood dealers and processors were among their important concerns.

Their lowest priority was the objective of "ensuring that fisheries do not harm the marine environment, including other species and marine habitats.”

The lack of strong substantive standards for management in the Sea Fisheries Regulations Act of 1966, was a "glaring omission."  It made only passing reference to the objective of “maintenance or improvement of fisheries.”  The Act was amended in 1995 to enable committees to write byelaws to protect the marine environment but it did not require them to do so.

Professor Eagle plans to publish his paper later this year. His original purpose was to compare UK sea fisheries committees with the superficially similar regional fishery management councils in the US.  However, it became apparent that a broad comparison would be neither practical nor specially useful, so he chose to focus his research on which kind of government official was likely to be more effective at representing the interests of the general public.

The full report is available for downloading as a Word document

h e r e



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