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The final North Sea Ministerial Conference

last chance to chart a course for managing the North Sea as an ecosystem?

Where, when, and who?

The North Sea Ministerial Meeting on the Environmental Impacts of Shipping and Fisheries will be held in Svenska Mässan, Mässans Gata/Korsvägen, Gothenburg (Göteborg), Sweden beginning at 13.00 on Thursday May 4 and closing at 13.00 on Fri 5 May, preceded by a preparatory meeting there on May 3 to finalise the draft declaration. At the meeting, Ministers will discuss and adopt a Declaration which the national delegations, agencies, and NGOs have been drafting for the past two years. The UK will be represented by Ben Bradshaw, UK Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare. As an official NGO Observer, BirdLife International has been party to drafting the Declaration but is focusing only on the Fisheries Issues (Chapter II) at the Conference. Last chance saloon for the 2010 target

It is probably the last ever North Sea Conference, which makes it a historic occasion, given that North Sea Conferences, ever since the first one in Bremen in 1984, have been the catalyst for cleaning up the North Sea and getting decision-makers to regard it as more than just a shipping highway and a production unit for fish. North Sea Ministerial Declarations are not legally binding but are a strong statement of political intent and have a track record of propelling the EU and Norway into concerted action and binding legislation.

Several key deadlines in the draft Declaration are still in square brackets. BirdLife International will press for ambitious deadlines for action. Dr Euan Dunn (RSPB), Head of the BirdLife delegation, said that

“An urgent timetable of action is needed from this, probably the last ever North Sea Ministerial Declaration, to ensure that the North Sea contributes to the commitment by EU leaders at the 2001 EU Gothenburg Summit to ‘halt the decline of biodiversity loss by 2010’.

The impending end of this forum has much to do with the increasingly dominant role by the OSPAR Commission for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic in developing marine policy for the whole region of which the North Sea is but a small part. Key issues in the Declaration

Although fisheries was addressed by the ground-breaking Intermediate Ministerial Meeting in Bergen (1997) and again at the last North Sea Ministerial Conference in Bergen 2002, BirdLife International believes that the Fisheries Chapter of the Gothenburg Declaration has the potential to set the agenda of environmental integration for years to come, building on the mandate from the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2002 for EU Member States to progressively implement an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management in Community Waters. Details of the Gothenburg Conference are available at http://www.sweden.gov.se/northseaconference The website includes the draft Declaration which will be amended and finalized at the (closed) preparatory meeting on 3 May. On the website, the Declaration is available at: http://www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/6363/a/58076;jsessionid=aV1dcOmVnCk5 Bearing in mind that the Declaration is still subject to change before the Ministerial meeting itself, key issues for BirdLife are as follows:Chapter II: The environmental impact of fisheries

1. Ecosystem Approach to fisheries management

In the run-up to the Ministerial meeting, BirdLife has been pointing out forcibly that, although there is now an obligation (following the reform of the CFP) to integrate environmental concerns in a systematic, staged way into the fisheries management of the North Sea. Efforts to do this so far have been piecemeal, ad hoc and largely reactive to events. As the Declaration says, ‘the challenge now is to make the ecosystem approach to fisheries management more operational’, and this requires a strategic plan of action over many years. BirdLife therefore strongly welcomes Ch II, §2 including ‘the Ministers request the competent authorities…to develop a fisheries ecosystem plan for the North Sea…, adopt this by the end of [2008] and progressively implement it thereafter’. Although Netherlands has a reservation on the 2008 deadline, BirdLife will strongly resist any slippage. In supporting the call for a Fisheries Ecosystem Plan, Euan Dunn said: “There are compelling reasons to make a decisive gear-shift now from the theoretical to the practical if the ecosystem approach to fisheries is to represent a fundamental change in the way we manage the North Sea, rather than just a cosmetic ‘bolt-on’.”2. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

BirdLife has long been pressing for a formal process to assess the environmental impacts of fisheries. The industry has resisted this, arguing that fishing methods evolve gradually and we are seldom able to point to a ‘new’ fishery or fishing method. Nevertheless, BirdLife welcomes that the Declaration is finally addressing this in ChII, §9: ‘The Ministers request the EU, Norway and competent authorities…to further develop, test, and introduce by [2008] for use within an EIA-procedure, technical guidelines for the systematic assessments of the impact of fishing activities on sensitive species and habitats.’ Euan Dunn said:

“The worst environmental excesses of invasive fisheries like beam-trawling, industrial fishing and deepwater fisheries could have been avoided if there had been a historical requirement to make a prior study of their impacts. All future fishing developments should be subject to such assessment, not just in the North Sea but throughout Community Waters.” 3. Marine Protected Areas and closed areas

In Ch II, §12, The Ministers ‘request the competent authorities to designate by 2008… experimental closed areas of sufficient size and duration aimed at substantially contributing to the recovery of one or several demersal stocks’.

BirdLife greatly welcomes this development. The possibility of new area closures to assist fish stock conservation in the North Sea, especially for cod, has largely been dismissed by the fishing industry and fisheries biologists as inappropriate. However the efficacy of such areas has rarely been subject to robust testing and they could be a powerful tool in the restoration of beleaguered stocks of skates and rays. According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in the official Progress Report for the Bergen Ministerial Meeting (2002), ‘In the North Sea, landings of skates and rays have decreased by more than a half during the last 50 years. The common skate has virtually disappeared from the North Sea, and the only effective protection for this critically endangered species is a drastic reduction or complete halt to all kinds of demersal fishery, e.g. through establishing closed areas, where relict populations exist.’4. Marine aquaculture

In Ch II, §28, the Ministers are asked to take urgent action to ensure that the aquaculture demand of feed based on fish-meal and oil does not compromise the sustainability of fish stocks. The background to this concern is that, as aquaculture expands exponentially, the world is running out of fish oil, and Europe is contributing to this:

* The EC aims to increase aquaculture employment by up to 10,000 jobs by 2008.
* The British Marine Finfish Association estimates that by 2010, UK fish farms will be producing up to 20,000t of cod, all dependent on aquafeed.
* Norway anticipates even more massive expansion. The Norwegian Govt has already invested £20million in developing cod farming and Magnus Skretting, head of Nutreco’s cod project, believes that Norway ‘can produce easily 100,000t by 2010 and then double that by 2013’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/3788045.stm

At the North Sea Conference, BirdLife – concerned about the potential to exert even more industrial fishing pressure on stuttering sandeel stocks - has pushed for measures to avert a critical shortfall in the supply of aquafeed. We therefore welcome ChII, §29 where the Ministers invite the competent authorities ‘to give much higher priority to developing alternatives to aqua-feed derived from targeting of wild fish stocks, and to give particular attention to improving the quality of feed derived from terrestrial plant material and fish waste from commercial fisheries that will otherwise be discarded’. Euan Dunn said:

“Action in this area is urgently needed to alleviate the pressure that will mount on sandeels and other fish at the base of the food chain from the massive global demand for fishmeal and oil as aquaculture takes off in the next ten years.”

4th July 2014