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A Problem in Small-Scale Fisheries Management in Spain and a Need to Rethink Implementation of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy

Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Xiao Recio-Blanco

Xiao Recio-Blanco

Senior Attorney; Director, Ocean Program

The Galician Association of Purse-Seine Vessel Owners (ACERGA by its acronym in Galician) is the largest association of purse-seine vessel owners in Spain. Over a year ago, ACERGA fishers and many members of their families camped in front of the main building of the government of Galicia (northwestern Spain), demanding that their voice be heard in the regulatory process for determining Spain’s annual fishing quota distribution of mackerel and horse mackerel. After more than two months living under the rain and cold, they broke camp and left without achieving their goal of meeting with government representatives.

Instead of giving up, they decided to follow a different strategy: they sought legal advice and sued the government of Spain, arguing that the quota distribution is arbitrary and capricious, creates conflicts and unequal treatment between fishing communities in northern Spain, and constitutes an unauthorized interpretation of the rules established by the Common Fisheries Policy. According to ACERGA attorney Jorge Buján and Universidade da Coruña Law School Professor Jaime Rodriguez-Arana, the suit has a high chance of success.

ACERGA fishing skipper Marcos Alfeirán during the protest camp in late 2015, NOS Television

The fisheries legal framework in Spain is based on the EU Common Fisheries Policy, which requires decisions about fishing quota distributions to be based on a balance between social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Each EU Member State, in passing regulation for quota distribution, must implement these general criteria. However, since passing Article 27 of the Maritime Fisheries Act of 2001, the annual Ministerial Decrees in Spain have established the annual fishing quota based on criteria that rely heavily on historic record of landings and that minimize environmental and socioeconomic criteria (e.g., the technical characteristics of the fishery and of the fishing vessel). This interpretation has generated significant disparities amongst fishers from the regions of northern Spain (Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque country), creating a “winners and losers” situation that has led to conflict between some of Spain’s most fisheries-dependent communities. This is why Prof. Rodriguez-Arana believes the current quota distribution in Spain might be repealed in court.

The problems with the current legal system can even be mapped. During my visit to the ACERGA offices in Sada, A Coruña, ACERGA’s technology officer Manuel Garcia logs into marinetraffic.com to show me the location of some of ACERGA’s fishing vessels. Despite being based in Galician ports, ACERGA’s small fishing boats are fishing for anchovy in the Bay of Biscay, hundreds of miles from their home port.

Model purse-seine vessels at the Galician National Museum in Santiago de Compostela

“The lack of a daily maximum is the cause of this problem,” explains José Blanco, President of ACERGA. “The law sets an annual TAC (Total Allowable Catch) for anchovy, but it does not set maximum daily catches per vessel. If there were a cap on the number of kilograms each vessel could land on a single day, this would create an incentive to limit the fishing effort. The system could even be more consonant with the natural migratory pattern of the species, and would allow fishing communities from all northern Spain to participate in the fishery without having to travel hundreds of miles. This is a problem that could be easily solved by updating the legal framework.” The fishers also demand other management reforms, such as linking catch-shares to the number of crew members per vessel, or finding ways to make more flexible the rules that determine catch-share transferability.

ACERGA fishers know the advantages of protecting the marine environment and adopting measures to support a sustainable use of the ocean’s living resources. Back in the early 1980s, many Galician purse-seine fishers lobbied the Spanish government to effectively ban the use of dynamite fishing. In the 1990s, they established one of the first voluntary daily catch limit systems for purse seiners. The Association has gone through a significant generational change and most vessel owners, now in their early forties, are mindful of the need for sustainable small-scale fisheries management. ACERGA fishers demand specific regulatory reforms to achieve a better balance of socioeconomic and environmental factors, such as establishing daily caps, and reforming the criteria for distribution of and trade with fishing quotas to promote stronger governance and broader wealth distribution.

We do not need to be rich or become big fishing tycoons—ACERGA representative Andrés Garcia Boutureira tells me—we just want to be allowed to make a living doing what we are good at. We know it can be done, provided the adequate policies and politics are in place.”

If the Spanish courts concur with Prof. Rodriguez-Arana’s interpretation, the Ministerial Decree establishing the quota distribution would be canceled, and the government would have to work toward updating its interpretation of the distribution criteria, which could be a great opportunity to work toward better collaboration between the government and the fishing community.

ACERGA, however, did not stop with just the lawsuit. My next blog will focus on a conference ACERGA held in cooperation with the Universidade da Coruña Law School, organized to bring together government representatives, fishers, and fishing policy experts to discuss the problems with and propose solutions to the current quota distribution system and purse-seine fishing.

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