Wednesday, 01 March 2017 00:00

Reconciling sometimes conflicting interests

The Danish Agrifish Agency, part of the Ministry of Environment and Food, is responsible for creating the conditions necessary for the sustainable growth of fisheries, including aquaculture, and agriculture. The agency has three broad areas of operation – legislation, subsidies, and control – which are used to exploit the country’s natural resources balancing the demands of the environment with that of industry. Bjørn Wirlander, Head of the EU and Fisheries Regulation Unit, and Anja Gadgård Boye, a colleague in the unit, speak here about some of the issues facing the Danish fisheries and aquaculture sector.


Today there is increased focus on getting the maximum value from the catch for both economic and environmental reasons. Ensuring the catch is treated well from the very start of the value chain is a way to achieving this. How can the administration best support the fishermen in this process?

This year although some of the quotas have declined, for example cod in the Baltic, many of them have increased. For industrial species In the North Sea we have record quotas this year. Fishers are always interested in obtaining the best possible price for their catch and we are all part of a legislative framework that favours the sustainable exploration of stocks. This places many obligations on fishers, motivating them to target those fish species, which give the best price. These requirements have increased with the implementation of the landing obligation, which necessitates clever fishing to maximise profits. As the administration, we can assist the fishermen to obtain financial support through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) for projects that can help them maximise value all along the value-chain, or develop ways of exploiting fish below the minimum size (the discard factor). In practical terms, we identify the possibilities they have and give them information about when they can apply and what they can apply for. For example, projects developing and testing more selective gear involving scientists, fishermen, and gear manufacturers have been funded. If they are found to work, fishers can seek a subsidy to switch to this equipment. Another initiative that is also funded through the EMFF is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, which is something that we support very strongly, as in some countries, Germany for instance, Danish fish or mussels do not get on to the market unless they are certified.

Bjørn Wirlander, Head of the EU and Fisheries Regulation Unit, Danish Agrifish Agency


A new fisheries package that seeks to support the coastal fishery sector is currently being negotiated in the Danish parliament. What are the highlights of the package and what impact do you anticipate it will have on the coastal fishery sector?

Two things that we can say for sure is that it will mean that the amount of fish distributed to the coastal fishermen is being increased to DKK80m or four times the amount of fish that was distributed in each of the last three years, making the small-scale fishers very satisfied. The package also includes a measure aimed at ensuring the long-term sustainability of the coastal fisheries. This will divide the coastal fishers into two groups, one which locks the fishermen in against certain incentives, and the other which is open. Fishers who opt for the locked group will not be allowed to leave it. Their vessels, capacity, and quotas will enter into the group and can only be sold to other members of the group. Renting quotas can also only be done within the group. These fishers will be entitled to an extra share of the additional amount that has been distributed to the coastal fishery. We anticipate that this group will consist of some 100-200 coastal fishers, probably those who are the most skilled at fishing. They are the ones who can expect to benefit the most from this arrangement as the extra share they will receive depends on how effective they are at exploiting their existing quotas. The better the exploitation rate, the bigger the extra share. Fishers joining the locked group thus have to weigh the disadvantages of some restrictions against the advantages of obtaining free fish.

For the political parties behind the package, the important idea was to secure the future of the coastal fishery by allocating it a higher share of the quotas. A healthy coastal fishery is good for small village harbours, the tourist industry, and for coastal communities, but the question is how much fish to invest for these purposes.

Another part of the package is intended to make it easier for young people to establish themselves as fishers by distributing a certain amount of fish to them each year over a period of eight years. After the fourth year, a quarter of the allocation is returned to the state which can then distribute it to another fisher who is starting a career. The state also encourages young fishers by providing them with fishing capacity. Fishers have to register their fishing capacity (the vessel’s tonnage and engine power) with the state and any unregistered capacity will enter a national trust, from which it can be distributed to young fishers.


The problem of seals for Danish coastal fishermen seems to be increasing as populations of the two seal species seen in Denmark, the harbour seal and the grey seal, continue to grow. How can policies be designed that reconcile two apparently contradictory positions, satisfy the fishers, yet also maintain the seal populations?

It is correct that the seals are protected, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be regulated. The challenge that we face here in Denmark is that, unlike the rest of the Baltic Sea, here there are only a few areas, where seals reproduce. We are working with the problem by developing seal-safe gear, and fishers can also apply for funds to buy these new gears. Currently the work is focused on the grey seal, which is increasing rapidly in the Baltic and which affects the line-fishery on the eastern coast of Zealand. A sum of DKK6 million has been earmarked for seal initiatives and additional measures are being funded by the EMFF on developing seal-proof gear for the cod fishery. We are now at the stage, where some of this gear can be tested and evaluated in a real fishery. If they prove effective, it should be possible to apply to the EMFF for support to purchase these new gears.

In addition to these efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency has launched an initiative whereby fishers can apply for a permit to cull two seals if they threaten his gear or his fish. After eliminating two animals a new permit has to be sought for a further two. We also think it makes sense to tackle the problem at a regional level and have approached Helcom to see if a wider solution can be devised. Essentially, we need to have the right balance between the level of the seal population and the fishery.


The Common Fisheries Policy emphasises regionalisation as a way of ensuring that policy is tailored to the needs of groups of nations or of a particular sea basin. How has this decentralisation benefited Danish fisheries and could you illustrate this with an example?

Regionalisation is a new and demanding task within the common fishery policies, because one needs to be in dialogue with all the member states, that are affected by whatever initiative that one is launching. At the same time, we feel that it is a positive initiative within the CFP as it gives us a very close say in how policy is designed and implemented. If the EU lays down the overall goal, then we together with our scientists and legal advisors, as well as other stakeholders, can establish a system that will enable us to achieve this goal. And if other Member States are affected then we collaborate with them so that at the end of the day we have a robust product that all the affected parties have helped shape. Of course, we always keep our national interests in mind, and if a plan compromises the national interest to an unacceptable degree, then it has to be reworked.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are an example of this collaboration, where Denmark discussed with Germany and Sweden about the protection of reef structures. Other sites had to be agreed with all the Baltic Sea member states, which was more challenging because it meant negotiating with more partners. And currently we are participating in discussions with the UK and the Netherlands regarding their proposals for MPAs.

Anja Gadgård Boye, EU and Fisheries Regulation Unit, Danish Agrifish Agency

Denmark takes over the presidency of Baltfish in July this year for a one-year period. What are the Danish priorities during its presidency? More generally, how does Denmark evaluate Baltfish and its achievements some five years after its establishment?

Denmark take over the presidency of Baltfish from Germany and the Danish presidency will depend on what Germany manages to finalise during its term as Denmark will continue working on issues that remain outstanding. One of the issues Denmark will work on during its presidency is the quota regulation for the Baltic Sea which will be discussed in Baltfish in the hope of finding agreement and presenting a joint recommendation to the EU Council. A joint recommendation is not always the case. There have been years when it has not been possible to reach an agreement in which case the Council has taken a decision. Another point is the regional implementation in the Baltic of regulations on technical measures. If Germany does not finalise this, Denmark will have to continue the work. Over the next couple of months it will become more apparent how much leeway Denmark has to decide on its agenda for its presidency.


While there are several non-indigenous finfish species in Danish waters, so far there is only one, the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus), that is considered invasive. How serious a risk does it pose and how can it be dealt with if it threatens commercially valuable species? In general, how is the threat from invasive species managed?

The round goby is indeed very aggressive and we have had our eye on it for quite a while now, because of its ability to spread rapidly. We have tried to help the fishermen exploit this species by letting them fish it indiscriminately and by funding initiatives that identify whether it can be used as fishmeal or for fish oil. Another project looked at the possibility of using turbot to prey on the round goby, but that has now been dropped. Catching and exporting it to countries, where it could be consumed is another idea. However, the fish is more of a problem in some areas than in others, and some fishers catch a lot of it while other do not. Additionally, the facilities at small harbours need to be improved if this fish is to be dealt with locally. We are also concerned about the impact it could have on stocks in the future given its tendency to feed on juvenile fish, an issue that needs to be researched. The new fisheries package that we discussed earlier also provides for the utilisation of new species, some of which are invasive. For example, the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) is another species that has spread rapidly northwards and is known to take over mussel beds, which is a problem for mussel fishermen. These invasive species are typically dealt with using management plans developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Starfish (Asterias rubens) is another species we are focused on though it is not invasive. They flourish when there are too many nutrients in the water and we are conducting trials on using starfish as a supplement to feeds for chicken and pigs. In general, we keep a close eye on species in our waters, whether we like them or not, with a view to sustainably exploiting them.


The Danish Eel Management Plan was implemented in 2009 to reduce the harvest of eels to allow more to escape to the sea to breed. What have been the results to date and what has been the impact of the plan on fishing communities that depend on eel as a valuable source of income?

The latest figures we have are for 2015 and they show that catches have fallen by 53% compared to the average in the reference period 2004-2006, so it is quite a substantial reduction. We continue to work on reducing the fishing gear, that is, the numbers of gears that the individual fisherman is allowed to use. We know that the catch is disproportionately small compared to the capacity of the gears they have, suggesting that many of the gears are inactive. We are encouraging the fishermen to reduce this capacity voluntarily, but if this does not work then we collaborate with the fishermen’s association to confiscate the gear. There is no real need for them to have the gear, it is not being used, and is very unlikely to be used in the future as existing regulations limiting eel catches are unlikely to be relaxed. Most eel fishermen are catching eel for cultural rather than commercial reasons and we try and accommodate this in the management of the species. Small fishers around the country are allowed to catch minor volumes of eel as it is a way of life for them. We recognise that many of them are older fishers who might find it difficult to give up their excess gear, but it is unlikely ever to be used again. Although we do not have the final figures from these efforts we are confident that we will meet the Commission’s targets.


The strategic objectives for Danish aquaculture include a 25% increase in production by 2020 compared with 2014. In addition, some 10% of production is planned to be organic by that year. Among other targets are to reduce legislative complexity and simplify procedures for obtaining an environmental permit. Would you say that the sector is on track to achieve these goals?

We have a very ambitious, technically advanced aquaculture production in Denmark. In 2016 the government introduced a growth plan for Danish aquaculture, which increased the nitrogen quota for freshwater and marine farms with the aim of increasing production. The plan also intends to encourage the use of recirculation systems, which have little impact on the environment. Also foreseen is the identification of areas in the Kattegat that would be suitable for farming marine fish. Some of the groundwork for this has already been carried out such as the identification of shipping lanes, and inflow of nutrients into Natura 2000 sites. Other parts of the plan will reduce some of the bureaucracy and make it easier for smaller fish farms to get environmental clearances. There is also a legislative proposal that is being discussed that will allow fish farmers to use mussel or algae farming as ways to mitigate the impact of the fish production. There are some who are against the aquaculture industry because of its impact on the environment, but we need to find a balance. Denmark is a front runner in the production of equipment that reduces aquaculture’s impact and if we want to keep this position we need to have a domestic fish farming industry. The EU is also keen to increase the production of farmed fish in Europe. Our role is to provide an independent and credible scientific basis for decisions, but the decisions themselves – how much aquaculture production should there be, how much pollution are we willing to tolerate – are political.