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Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported to Parliament today that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although meeting European requirements, can enhance the effectiveness of its enforcement of fisheries regulations. This would support efforts to improve sustainability and compliance with the Common Fisheries Policy.

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Some fish stocks are under threat of total collapse but sustainability is essential for economic survival of the industry – worth some £150 million a year in landings in England alone. The Department spends some £11 million annually on fisheries enforcement in England, monitoring the activities of over 3,300 vessels operating in one of the most highly regulated industries in the UK. Today’s report recognises the complexity of the task in enforcing regulations on a mobile industry operating in a large geographical area, both in terms of size of coastal waters and number of potential landing sites.

Fishermen consulted by the National Audit Office were generally supportive of measures promoting conservation. Regulations are infringed because potential gains may be seen as outweighing the penalties if detected or because the regulations are regarded as inconsistent with conservation objectives, for example, discarding fish already dead. Deterrents and incentives should therefore threaten the gains from non-compliance if they are to increase the effectiveness of regulation.

The report concludes that currently the likelihood of detection and prosecution of any particular offence is low, as are the penalties imposed by comparison with the potential gains from infringements:

  • there is a less than 1 per cent chance that a vessel will be inspected at sea on any one day of fishing and a less than 6 per cent chance of its landings being inspected; and
  • from a sample of court cases from 2000 and 2001 the National Audit Office found that typically the fine imposed would be about 1.7 times the value of the infringement detected and prosecuted.

The Department has sought to improve enforcement, for example by greater use of satellite technology; new requirements for larger vessels to land catches at specified ports; working with other fisheries authorities through joint operations and sharing information; better co-ordination of inspection activity; and transmission of data outside normal working hours. The Department lacks flexibility, however, in the way it can deploy resources and people. Whilst 10 inspectors cover landings of 13,000 tonnes in the South of England for example, 15 inspectors cover landings of 47,000 tonnes in the South West.

The National Audit Office makes a number of recommendations.

These include the need for the Department to:

  • make increasing use of landing patterns and surveillance information to target individual vessels suspected of breaking regulations;
  • increase the options for pursuing and penalising infringements, for example through administrative penalties;
  • consider redeploying Inspectorate staff to maximise the likelihood that illegal landings of fish will be detected and to consider fully the relative risks in each area including the volume and value of landings, and the number of vessels using ports and harbours;
  • consider whether there would be benefit in seeking change in current European Union enforcement legislation to allow the landing of discarded fish, with the proceeds being used to fund research or greater enforcement activity;
  • use the Regional Advisory Councils to be established at European Union level to help inform the development of enforcement practice, and draw on some of the practices used in other countries to encourage more widespread support from the industry for effective management of fisheries regulations; and
  • review the role of the Sea Fisheries Inspectorate and those of other agencies including the Sea Fisheries Committees and the Environment Agency; promote co-operation with others, for example seeking data on fish sales from the industry to help estimate the extent of non-compliance with regulations, and assess the effectiveness of enforcement activity.

"The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has improved the effectiveness of enforcement: for example, by requiring larger vessels to land at designated ports to make it easier to target inspections. The low chance of prosecution and the potentially high gains, however, may encourage illegal catches and landing of fish, undermining conservation policies.

"Continuing threats to fish stocks highlight the need for effective enforcement methods, as recognised by the recent reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy agreed by European Union Ministers which seek to tighten controls in all member states."

Sir John Bourn


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