Tuesday, 30 June 2020 14:56

Assisting the European fisheries and aquaculture sector through a pandemic

EM3 20 HRCroatia steers Presidency of the EU Council despite coronavirus

This article featured in EM 3 2020.

Holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union is a challenging task at the best of times. Despite being a small country, holding the Presidency for the first time, and facing a Europe-wide health and economic crisis, Croatia intends to make progress on key fisheries and aquaculture issues on its agenda, says Ante Misura, Assistant Minister with responsibility for fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Since the 1st of January, Croatia has taken over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. What are the main priorities for the fisheries sector on the agenda during the 6-month presidency, and are they going to be achieved, given the current Covid-19 crisis?

This is our first Presidency since becoming an EU Member State. It came at a time of many changes, with the new Commission and Parliament on board, and with the UK leaving the EU family. The Presidency often faces unplanned situations, but the Covid-19 crisis is without precedent in recent history. From a practical point of view, meetings at the Council could no longer take place as planned, and it has therefore been difficult to make progress within our 6-month term. In light of the crisis, our priority was to find a way to help the fishery and aquaculture sector to better cope with the consequences of the pandemic. In close cooperation with the Commission and the Parliament, we managed to adopt urgent new measures that will support fishermen, aquaculture farmers and processors. However, our main priorities have remained the same, and are related to two important subjects. First are the negotiations on the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund for the 2021-2027 programming period. We aim to achieve as much progress as possible in inter-institutional negotiations, and have found a way to continue working with the Commission and the Parliament in these challenging times. Our second priority is to make significant progress on the new fisheries control regulation, and we believe we will achieve it by the end of our Presidency. Our goal is to reach a Partial General Approach in June, as planned.

 

In January 2020, the European Commission withdrew the proposal for a multi-annual plan for small pelagic stocks in the Adriatic Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks, and no agreement is foreseen anytime soon. What is your opinion on this, and what impact will it have on the sustainability of small pelagics fisheries in the Adriatic?

The fact that the Commission withdrew its proposal for a multi-annual plan for small pelagic stocks in the Adriatic Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks is not expected to have a negative impact on the sustainability of small pelagic fisheries in the Adriatic. This is so as the management of small pelagic stocks in the Adriatic is already addressed at the regional scale. Namely, there is a multiannual plan for small pelagics in the Adriatic in force adopted by the GFCM. At the moment, this plan is supplemented by a set of emergency measures during the 3-year period 2019-2021. In addition, one of the provisions incorporated in the legal framework implies the obligation to develop a new multiannual management plan for 2022 and onwards, picking up on the results of the current management framework. Apart from the measures in force through a GFCM framework, and which include catch limit and its progressive decrease, effort limits through a complex system of spatial and temporal restrictions as well as capacity limits, Croatia at the national level implements even stricter measures that go beyond the international framework. This proves our commitment to directing stocks of sardine and anchovy back within the safe biological limits, but always by taking into account sub regional specificities and the sustainability of the industry. Some positive benchmarks have already been achieved based on the current legal framework, particularly in terms of improving the scientific methodology. Here it needs to be highlighted that the time necessary for stock assessment has been shortened for a whole year enabling the stock assessment to be based on the time series including the data from the previous calendar year (n-1). This is very important for managing the short-lived species such as sardine and anchovy and represents a revolutionary approach in the entire Mediterranean region. Also, some stable or even positive trends are observed with respect to the state of sardine and anchovy stocks, which are still far from the full recovery but certainly the signals are encouraging. Overall, we believe that the GFCM framework is more suitable for managing fisheries in the Adriatic as it applies to the entire region, including the non-EU riparian countries (Albania and Montenegro) and creating a level playing field for all players in the area.

Fishing and aquaculture are among the sectors hardest hit by the outbreak of the coronavirus, as demand has seen a sudden decline in the EU. What are the main issues Croatian fishermen are experiencing during the crisis, and how is Croatia helping the sector address these challenges?

Croatian fishermen and farmers are indeed hit by the outbreak of the coronavirus Covid-19. As in most countries, serious market disturbances have occurred due to a significant decrease in demand. The main challenge for the sector was where to place fish products since restaurants and fish markets were closed and it was difficult to export due to the quarantine measures and situation in Italy, which represents our main fish market. For that reason, fishermen were selling more fish directly from the fishing vessels. Nevertheless, most of the fisherman have remained in ports to avoid any further losses, whilst farmers were facing very low prices for their fish. As regards measures intended to provide assistance to fishermen and other beneficiaries in the fisheries and aquaculture sector during the Covid-19 crisis, several means of financial assistance are foreseen in Croatia, out of which some have already being implemented and others are in preparation. Croatia has already started the implementation of temporary cessation measure under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, introduced specifically to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak in the fishery and aquaculture sector in the framework of the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII package). Within this measure, support is granted to fishermen in the form of compensation for losses which they are facing during the period of cessation of fishing activities due to Covid- 19 outbreak. As compensation includes financial support for salaries of crew members of respective fishing vessels, this measure contributes also to maintaining employment during this crisis. Furthermore, other means of assistance to fisheries and aquaculture sector have also been made available. In the framework of state aid, Croatia has designed a state aid scheme to support the fishery and aquaculture sector in the context of the coronavirus outbreak and serious disturbances to the economy. The scheme was approved by the European Commission under the State aid Temporary Framework. The public support, which will take the form of direct grants, aims at ensuring that companies active in the sector, which are experiencing cash difficulties due to the coronavirus outbreak, have liquidity to maintain their activities during and after the outbreak. The scheme, which will apply to the whole territory of Croatia (mainland and islands), will be open to companies of all sizes active in the fishery and aquaculture sector, including those active in marine commercial fishing (capture fisheries), shellfish farming, marine fish farming, warm-water (cyprinid) and cold-water (salmonid) fish farming, processing of fisheries and aquaculture products and fisheries cooperatives. The scheme is implemented based on the national ordinance on conditions, criteria and manner of granting state aid in fisheries supporting economy – Covid- 19 (OG 53/20). Applications for aid can be submitted by the beneficiaries is till 20 May 2020. Funds available under this scheme amount to 30 million kuna (around 4 million euro) and maximum amount of aid per undertaking is EUR 120,000. Financial support to other sectors such as the aquaculture and fish processing sector, but also to producer organisations, is also possible also under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Preparation for the implementation of such measures is currently on-going, with an analysis and state of play in the respective sectors.

Croatia is introducing a traceability system for fishery and aquaculture products from catch to consumer. Which species are going to be traced and what are the expectations of such a system? There is also an app for fishermen to report their fishing activities and sales. How does this work in practice? Are fishermen accustomed to using digital tools in their work?

Croatia has introduced a traceability system for bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) and swordfi sh (Xiphias gladius) at the beginning of 2020. Traceability system defines that every fisherman has to mark every fish and to introduce the barcode in the electronic system that will be passed to the first buyer and afterwards to any other buyer in the distribution chain up to the final consumer. By scanning the bar code, consumer can trace the fish on the web page https:// ribarstvo.hr/hriba/ and can get information about the species, location of the fishing, fishing toll category etc, and about the fisherman himself. Our system enables fishermen to tell the story about themselves, their vessels and fishing in the Adriatic Sea, about their tradition and culture. In our opinion, the traceability system is very important for food safety and to prove the legitimacy of the fish as well as to verify sustainability. It also enables local fish and producers to be recognized on the market. In the future, a traceability system is foreseen for other species, but it will be introduced gradually. We strongly believe that this system, among other benefits, will result in a better price for the fishermen since it will be recognized on the market. During the last decade, we have introduced various electronic systems for fishermen and farmers in Croatia so to speed up the processes, to make it simpler for users and administration, more accurate, efficient, and easier to control. One of those systems includes possibility (for certain vessels it is obligatory) to send the catch data via e-logbook or through a mobile application. We see a positive trend over the last months in using the mobile app, which confirms that we are on the right track and we will continue to develop and to modernize our fishery information system in the future. For fishermen that are not accustomed to using digital tools in their work we provide technical support on daily basis and during weekends, and we listen to their suggestions for improvements.

Croatia has been using drones for fisheries control, surveillance and monitoring since 2019. What has been the outcome of this initiative? Have drones proved to be better than traditional control tools and surveillance tactics? Has their deployment brought about a decline in IUU fishing?

In 2018, the “Orbiter 3” drone system was introduced. It is six fully equipped drones with a range of 150 km that can fl y for 6 hours at a time, while their mobile launching system means they cover all Croatian territorial waters. The drones are equipped with cameras with extensive capabilities like recognition of vessel marking at 2 km as well as recording any other maritime activities. During the first phase of using the system, we had to learn a lot about the system itself as well as its possibilities. The Ministry of Defence operates the drone system. We are using drones in coordination with our fisheries inspection vessels that operate from the sea. In this short period, it has proved to be a very efficient and fast way of detecting and preventing IUU activities while protecting legal fisheries from illegal competition.

The landing obligation for species subject to minimum conservation reference sizes in the Mediterranean has been in force for over a year now. Given the specificities of fisheries in Croatia (numerous landing ports, many on islands), implementing the landing obligation gives more costs than benefits. What is the long-term solution to this issue? What is the current number of ports and is it expected to decrease?

Landing obligation is certainly one of the biggest challenges of the Common Fisheries Policy. After being implemented over more than 5 years for small pelagic species, progressively including more and more species, it reached its full implementation in 2019. Landing obligation as currently defined by the Common Fisheries Policy surely requires an overall reassessment and, although it is implemented on the basis of a regional approach, a more decisive shift in that direction is needed as the circumstances diff er to a large extent between different regions. So far, Croatian fisheries have operated under the de minimis exemption rules which has proved a feasible solution. This tool allows for a derogation from the full implementation of the landing obligation where the quantity of discard is small and the costs for collection and handling, disproportionally high. However, Croatia is committed to reach the conservation goals of the Common Fisheries Policy and we will continue to encourage research activities and scientific solutions that would clear the path towards further decrease of the discard quantities.

The Ministry has been supportive of projects managed by NGOs to help small-scale fishermen diversify incomes or to sustainably exploit marine protected areas. Is it mainly moral support that the ministry provides for ad hoc cases, or is there a policy to actively encourage collaboration between fishers and NGOs, and increase the economic and environmental sustainability of this segment?

The Ministry actively encourages collaboration between fishermen and NGOs in order to contribute to the policy of active support to fishermen with the aim of increasing economic and ecological sustainability, in particular for the small-scale coastal fisheries. In that respect, various measures are available under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund in which NGOs can be supported for their projects. For example, one of these measures concerns partnership between scientists and fishermen where NGOs can receive support for projects related to the creation of networks, partnership agreements or associations and implementation of the activities carried out in the framework of partnerships, such as data collection and management activities, studies, pilot projects, dissemination of knowledge and research results, seminars and best practices. Furthermore, NGOs are also supported under the communityled local development projects, financed under the Union Priority 4 of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund in the framework of fisheries local development strategies developed and managed by fisheries local action groups (FLAGs). Several FLAGs have participated in such projects, managed by NGOs, which aim to help fishermen, including small-scale operators, diversify incomes or to sustainably exploit marine protected areas.

One of the biggest Croatian fishing cooperatives has entered a Fisheries Improvement Project with the objective of getting MSC certification for the fishery. Does the ministry support eff orts by cooperatives or others to obtain third-party environmental certification?

We are aware that ecolabelling, traceability and related certification are becoming significant features of fish trade and marketing. There are many ecolabels concerning different products in operation on the world, and some of them are related to fisheries and aquaculture. One of them is MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification that focuses on wild capture fisheries and provides for independent scientific verification of the sustainability of the stock, eco-system impact of the fishery and the eff ective management of the fishery. There is also ASC (Aquaculture Sterwardship Council) which manages the global standards for responsible aquaculture and is implemented by our farmers. Adoption of environmental certification provides an additional tool to move forward towards sustainability of capture fisheries and aquaculture and brings together elements of the market, industry and environmental interest. We do encourage our fisherman (cooperatives, PO’s or individuals) and farmers to work according to scientific advice and market needs and to exploit resources sustainably.

Climate change in the Adriatic is likely to have an impact in particular on demersal stocks. What are the implications of this for the demersal fisheries sector? Are measures to mitigate or help fishers adapt to these changes being considered by the Ministry? What do they consist of?

Climate change and its impacts on marine ecosystems are unfortunately a reality. There are several signals in the Adriatic Sea that indicate the response of ecosystems to climate change. Under the stable increase in sea water temperature, it is expected that the thermophilic species would benefit from this development increasing their abundance and overall biomass to the detriment of species with limited tolerance to temperature increase. This can already be observed with Nephrops norvegicus (Norway lobster) and Parapenaeus longirostris (deep-water rose shrimp): biomass of Norway lobster (preferring cold water) decreases, while that of the thermophilic deepwater rose shrimp increases as does its area of distribution. Also an increase in the abundance of some alien species (for example, Callinectes sapidus (blue crab)) or species which were considered rare in the past such as Pomatomus saltatrix (bluefish), or Balistes carolensis (triggerfish) can be observed with the result that they become more and more important commercially. In addition, climate change causing an increase of sea temperature and aff ecting sea current patterns also causes a change of behaviour and migration routes of a number of marine organisms. The eff ects of climate change are a growing challenge which are still being studied and ongoing research projects in collaboration with the leading scientific institutions in the region are used as a basis for making decisions in management. As for the management response to climate change in the segment of demersal fishery, it should be noted that Croatia applies a complex system of spatio-temporal restrictions which is primarily based on protection of spawning and nursery grounds which has proven to be the most eff ective management measure so far. The best example is the management regime applied in the Jabuka Pit as one of the most important nursery grounds for commercially important demersal species, that feeds the entire Adriatic Sea. In case changes in spawning areas or spawning periods are noted, the management measures can swiftly be adapted to the new situation. Such fl exibility implies a close collaboration between science and administration and is able to ensure sufficiently eff ective conservation measures which guarantees the sustainability of resources and fisheries. We recognise the importance of continued support to scientific research projects towards understanding the eff ects of climate change on marine ecosystems and we plan to maintain good collaboration with science in this respect and are committed to providing adequate management responses to the ever changing situation in the sea.

Croatia is partnering with Italy in several cross-border projects, e.g. SASPAS, FAIRSEA, under the Interreg Europe programme. From Croatia’s perspective which are the priority areas within the fisheries sector for these cross-border projects? Are there areas where Croatian and Italian interests diverge?

There are around a dozen joint projects with Italy currently ongoing in the field of fisheries. Such a high number of joint initiatives is a direct result of more than 50 years of intensive cooperation in joint research programs aiming at harmonising and agreeing on a common approach in conservation of resources. Also, it is worth mentioning that our mutual relation is more and more based on collaboration and compatibility rather than on competition. Often, the cooperation on the Adriatic level is used as an example of good practice to other regions where a number of riparian countries share common resources. The results of this cooperation are recognised on international level, not only in the EU, but also at the GFCM. As for the FAIRSEA project, the Ministry of Agriculture is a partner on this project and supports it at all levels. Believing that the ecosystem based approach is the future for the management of living marine resources, we support any eff ort directed into the modelling exercises which would improve the knowledge and understanding of the processes within the ecosystems, however small they might be. Any such tool developed to take into account and integrate regional specificities in all aspects (geographical, biological, economic, social, etc.) and on all levels (scientifi c, administrative and sectorial) would be more than welcome in our daily work. The cooperation with our Italian colleagues is good but the Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted the project. However, we expect that we would soon pick up and continue with the activities. There are other projects that are being implemented with our Italian colleagues such as Adri.SmArt- Fish that unites Italian and Croatian regions of the northern Adriatic, together with two pre-eminent research centres and the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Croatia, in an eff ort to promote sustainability, innovation and co-creation (the collaborative development of value using customers, suppliers etc.) in small-scale fisheries (SSF) policymaking. Also under the support of Interreg we have an ongoing Prizefi sh project which aims to increase economic competitiveness of Italian and Croatian Adriatic fishing SMEs and Producer Organizations (POs) by developing and piloting innovative fishery products with added-value given by ecolabels fulfilling requirements of environmental, economic and social sustainability. These are just some of the projects that are conducted with our Italian partners and there is a positive trend over the past years that confirms that we are on the right track when we talk about fishing in the Adriatic. We have a common interest in securing the sustainable exploitation of marine resources in our sea basin for our fishermen and the generations to come which is a challenging task that can be achieved only if we work side by side.