Page last updated at 05:56 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 06:56 UK

Sea change for managing fisheries

North and south Wales sea fisheries' committee responsibilities could come under the control of the Welsh Assembly Government

With change on the cards for management and enforcement of Welsh inshore sea fisheries, BBC Wales environment correspondent Iolo ap Dafydd goes to sea with a patrol.

In Caernarfon Bay it's a sunny and warm autumnal day. Some people are out on pleasure crafts, and fishing boats.

None as large as the Aegis. This is the main patrol boat of the North Western and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee.

Currently this 53ft (16m) boat, with a crew of three, polices inshore waters between Cardigan in Ceredigion and Barrow in Cumbria.

On this particular morning the crew, using an inflatable dinghy launched off the back of the Aegis, supervise a handful of local fishermen to check they hadn't caught any under-sized fish, or small shellfish.

On board the Aegis on the Menai Strait, off Anglesey,
On board the Aegis on the Menai Strait, off Anglesey. Photo: Iolo ap Dafydd

Under European Union regulations, fish quota affects the Welsh inshore fishing boatmen, as much as the large trawlers of Spain, Scotland, Cornwall and eastern England.

All's well and good, and we move off, to patrol down the Menai Strait before heading for the Aegis' home port of Conwy.

There are 12 Sea Fisheries Committees (SFCs) in England and Wales but after over a century, a big shake-up is on the way.

The SFCs are a network of local management regulators, consisting of local authorities and sea officers with scientific backgrounds to manage and develop inshore fisheries - within six nautical miles of the coastline.

According to the North Western and North Wales SFC (NWNW SFC) website, Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones is proposing to abandon more than "100 years of successful inshore fisheries management in favour of the Welsh Assembly Government doing the job itself".

Not so said the minister, who said last month: "I am determined that the new arrangements will not result in the loss of the expertise of the SFCs and their officers, nor their close working relationship with fishermen.

"We will be integrating current SFC staff into the new structure to ensure continuity, and retaining legislative powers similar to those which the SFCs have at present."

Master of the patrol boat
There are concerns about lack of details in the proposals as they stand

With the Marine Bill proceeding through Westminster, England intends to modernise and beef up its SFCs and call them inshore fisheries and conservation authorities (IFCAs).

They'll take on a bigger role in protecting the marine environment, with potentially 4-6m extra in their budget.

In Wales currently, inshore fisheries are managed by the two SFCs, the Environment Agency as well as the assembly government.

'Back up the options'

The latter would prefer to bring everything in-house with a new Wales Fisheries Zone, and assume full responsibility for the management and enforcement of sea fisheries and wants to implement this through the Marine Bill.

Assembly government officials claim through their proposal, the changes would have the following advantages:

They would modernise fisheries management and provide an unified approach to managing Welsh inshore waters

All running costs would be met from funds available to existing SFCs through local authorities

The proposals in general have been welcomed by most local authorities and the fishing industry

They would have a direct influence on the industry rather than rely on appointees to committees

If accepted, the assembly government proposals could be implemented by April 2010.

Some of the organisations which could be affected are questioning the lack of details.

Greta Hughes
There are worries if inflatables have to patrol an area further out to sea
In response, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) felt the "current system of fisheries management within Wales works fairly well."

Its main reservations was to its "brevity" and that the plan "does not have detail back up the options proposed".

It wants clarification on how management and enforcement of sea fisheries in-house would operate in practice.

Conservation organisation WWF Cymru's senior marine policy officer Dr Iwan Ball is more blunt.

"In the absence of detailed proposals... we believe that it would be a retrograde step simply to abandon the long-standing SFC model in favour of more remote and centralised structure."

But not every organisation has misgivings. Many fishermen feel there's duplication in various regulating bodies and some like Jerry Percy, chief executive of the Welsh Federation of Fishermen Association, are supportive.

Experience and knowledge

"The federation broadly supports the principles expressed within the consultation," he said.

Mr Percy said "many Welsh fishermen do not consider the Sea Fisheries Committee fit for purpose."

But he also complains that the consultation paper does not provide sufficient detail.

So far the SFCs control fishing within six miles of the shore, but the area of control for Wales is out to 12 nautical miles, where for a few weeks a year the Royal Navy normally operate.

Now there talk of policing out to the median line - which could be as far as 25 miles out to the Irish and Celtic seas.

There's even been a verbal suggestion, say fisheries officers, that they'll be expected to patrol that far out to sea in their 40hp inflatable dinghies, which are open to the elements and are only 16ft long.

A scanner showing land and boats on board the patrol boat
There are also budget concerns in keeping the Aegis in the water

Not many would relish working in those conditions.

Martyn Boyce, the NWNW SFC principal fishery officer, said: "On a nice calm day, a small rib, no problem at all. You could operate a mile or two mile off the shore - no problem.

"But what we're talking about maybe, of operating an area 20 to 25 miles off-shore. There's no way we'd be allowed to take a small rib unsupported."

But in a statement, the assembly government said: "There is no question that north Wales will be without a boat once the enforcement of fisheries has come the Welsh Assembly Government, or that staff will be made to patrol waters in vessels which are not suitable."

But there are concerns that within the 1m combined annual budget of the South and North Wales sea fisheries committees, there wouldn't be sufficient funds to keep the Aegis in the water.

Purpose-built for the NWNW SFC, the concern between Cardigan and the Dee Estuary is that this patrol boat will be used on the English side of Liverpool Bay - and that Welsh officers would have to make do with their inflatable dinghies.

Other concerns are about the potential loss of local regulation with locally elected representatives of the local councils and others who've been appointed on fishery committee's because of their experience and knowledge. They could be fishermen, fish processors, scientists and merchants.

Even if retained as advisers, they'd lose their regulating teeth.

But the main questions seem to be about the dangers of making decisions for political rather than scientific reasons, and the worrying lack of details, especially regarding funding.



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