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Rights-based management tools in fisheries

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Rights-based management tools in fisheries

The Commission is launching a debate on the future of rights-based management systems in fisheries under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). It proposes focusing on the analysis of current national systems and the possibility of improving their efficacy by sharing best practices.


Commission Communication of 26 February 2007 on rights-based management tools in fisheries [COM(2007) 73 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


Globally, all management systems have introduced some form of access and/or use rights to fishery resources. This is also the case for the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which provides inter alia for the granting of national licences and quotas, the limitation of "days at sea" for certain fisheries, and various measures to limit fleet capacity. Although the basic mechanisms of the CFP for allocating fishing rights among the Member States have proved to be effective, in other respects the CFP has fallen short of its objectives, as is shown by the depleted condition of many fish stocks, and the poor economic performance of some parts of the fleet. The current main objective of the CFP therefore is to conserve resources in order to preserve the ecosystem and sustain economic activity.

The Commission considers that the wide variety of management systems currently applied in the Community lacks transparency, efficacy and in some cases overall coherence, and this merely adds to the economic difficulties faced by the fishing industry. The aim of this Communication is to examine various options for improving the efficacy of management in the fishing industry, while helping to achieve the basic objectives of the CFP. The Commission proposes launching a debate with Member States and the fishing industry which it hopes will be "pragmatic, transparent and fruitful". The topics to be examined include an assessment and improvement of the systems in place and the sharing of best practices.

Community context

Fisheries management systems form part of the competences shared between the European Union (EU) and the Member States. Community competences relate to:

  • limiting total fleet size;
  • fixing catch and fishing effort levels;
  • adopting technical measures (restrictions on the use of certain vessels or gears) in order to better protect stocks.

National authorities are responsible for distributing and managing licences, quotas and fishing effort at national and regional levels.

All these management measures help to define and characterise the rights of access and harvest of individual fishermen. Economic value can be attached to these rights but this often occurs in a non-transparent and unpredictable way.

Rights-based management systems in fisheries

Rights-based management systems in fisheries are simply a means of helping fishermen to perform better from an economic viewpoint. Hence, there is still a need to define conservation objectives to be achieved by means of various fisheries management measures (e.g. quotas). However, formalising fishing rights can enable these objectives to be achieved in a more cost-effective manner. Consequently, economic sustainability should result in improved biological sustainability, since a well-functioning rights-based management system should lead to an increased interest on the part of fishermen and industry in the sustainability of this basic resource.

The most controversial aspect of these management systems is the transferability of fishing rights. It creates a market value for the use of resources which can be substantial and have significant repercussions on the development of the sector. The transferability of rights improves the efficacy of fishing enterprises. It also tends to intensify the concentration of quotas, licences, geographical distribution and fleet composition in the sector. It should be noted that such a concentration is also the result of the reduction in fishing possibilities. To counterbalance excessive concentration, rights-based management tools can be designed to restrict concentrations beyond a certain threshold, so as to preserve the geographical balance of fishing activities and to maintain the cultural, social and professional fabric, in particular by protecting small-scale inshore fishing activities. Nevertheless, the new measures for restricting the concentration of rights must respect Internal Market and competition rules. The Commission is obliged to ensure that the mechanisms implemented to restrict concentration and relocation comply with the rules of the Single Market and Community competition legislation.

Rights-based management systems in fisheries may also help to solve "high grading" * and discard problems which endanger resource sustainability and complicate assessment of the real level of catches. These problems existed already, independently of the rights-based management systems. The Commission has put forward a plan for eliminating discards. Similarly, increased control over fishing activities is an essential prerequisite for the ultimate success of any management system which is implemented.

Initiating a debate

Given the recognition by the CFP of the principle of "relative stability" for the allocation of fishing possibilities between Member States, which is intended to ensure "a predictable share of the stocks for each Member State", the introduction of a Community-level rights-based management system, in which fishing rights would be freely tradable, seems unlikely. It is at national level that methods of management and transferability of fishing rights should be developed. Naturally, this will not prevent the exchange of quotas between Member States, as practised currently.

Discussions between the Commission, Member States and the fishing industry have revealed certain sensitive topics linked to the setting-up of rights-based management systems in fisheries. These include:

  • the issue of "relative stability";
  • transferability of fishing rights, which may involve an excessive, and often irreversible, concentration of these rights;
  • initial allocation and period of validity of fishing rights;
  • possible adverse conditions for the small-scale fisheries sector when it coexists with industrial fishing enterprises;
  • "high grading" and discard problems;
  • the need for effective enforcement controls.

The Community debate, which is intended to be as broad as possible, should also cover:

  • an analysis of current national systems;
  • the improvement of their efficacy, by means of sharing best practices;
  • transnational elements such as seeking synergies between the Member State systems, or the introduction of the exchange of quotas between Member States.

These subjects should be tackled as part of a necessary and urgent debate on the future of rights-based management tools in fisheries. The Commission will contribute to this discussion by means of a series of studies and expert opinions. It plans to sum up the debate at the start of 2008, to assess the need for further action, and to draw up a report for the Council and the European Parliament, which will include, if and when appropriate, proposals or recommendations for follow-up.

Key terms used in the act

  • High grading: A practice involving the rejection of part of a catch for economic reasons, for example, when the cost of transporting the fish is higher than its market value or if the hold is reserved for the conservation or transport of species with a greater value

Last updated: 05.12.2007