MSY: useful yardstick or dangerous dogma?

Published by FiskerForum, 11-02-2019 · info@fiskerforum.dk

UK fishermen’s leaders warn that some of Britain’s most successful fisheries could be shut down if environmental NGOs and their sympathisers have their way as the Fisheries Bill makes its way through Parliament.

According to the NFFO, battles being fought for parliamentarian’s favour in both Houses, and one of these is over how the principle of maximum sustainable yield should be applied to our fisheries after the UK has left the EU and CFP.

‘MSY is a convenient yardstick to measure whether fish stocks are being fished at sustainable levels. It involves establishing biological reference points for each stock as a rough proxy for the levels fishing which would secure maximum benefits from each stock,’ an NFFO spokesman said, explaining that the concept was never designed to be applied in mixed fisheries where a range of species, each with different conservation status, are caught together.

‘Useful when used as an aspiration, applied in a dogmatic way, MSY can become an obstacle to sustainable fisheries management,’ he said, adding that MSY was adopted as a political objective at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg in 2005.

‘Since then it has been used as a shorthand yardstick for sustainability. And since 2013, after extensive lobbying by the environmental NGOs, it has been a legal requirement within the CFP, with a deadline to have all harvested species consistent with MSY by 2020. MSY therefore comes into play when quotas for each species are set each year, based on scientific advice produced by ICES.’

‘ICES produce single species advice for each stock to meet the European Commission’s request for advice expressed in a memorandum of understanding. The form of that request is important. Even though, since 2000, fishing pressure across all of the main species groups has been falling dramatically and stocks have been rebuilding steadily, scientists when asked what level of catch is consistent with achieving MSY by 2020, for a handful of stocks can only provide one possible answer: zero catch. And that is a problem for mixed fisheries under the landing obligation.’

With management decisions for each stock always based on the scientific advice, there are inevitably trade-offs between the different objectives require compromises related to building or maintaining the biomass of each stock to MSY, reducing discards and avoiding chokes, and maintaining the viability of fishing businesses and fishing communities.


This naturally makes setting quotas complex as multiple objectives require difficult trade-offs. The introduction of the EU landing obligation raises the stakes because of the risk of chokes.

‘When the exhaustion of quota for one species will mean that a vessel cannot retain any more of that species but neither can the species be landed because there is no quota to cover that landing, it’s a classic Catch-22,’ the NFFO’s spokesman said.

‘In recognition of these kind of management dilemmas, the EU introduced the concept of fishing mortality ranges into their management plans, in the teeth of strenuous opposition from the more purist NGOs and their allies in the European Parliament. F-ranges are not a panacea for chokes, but they do provide fisheries managers with a little more flexibility to set quotas in mixed fisheries. Even the European Commission, charged with overseeing implementation of EU fisheries law, has been noticeably reluctant to give full force to the MSY principle in its proposals - because of the consequences of following a one-dimensional path.’

MSY in the Fisheries Bill

The central purpose of the Fisheries Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, is to provide UK fisheries ministers with the authority to set quotas and control access to UK waters after the UK departs the EU. It also contains a range of broad objectives, including one to maintain fish stocks in line with the MSY principle.

‘What is missing by contrast with the Common Fisheries Policy, is the requirement to set quotas for all harvested stocks at MSY by 2020,’according to the NFFO.

‘This has been done for good reason. A hard, legal obligation to set quotas at MSY, irrespective of the circumstances, would tie managers’ hands in dealing with the necessary trade-offs described above. Removing the arbitrary deadline provides fisheries management with a degree of flexibility to manage mixed fisheries whilst still maintain the commitment to set quotas at levels which generate maximum economic benefits.’

‘The NGOs argue that this change represents a dilution of the UK’s commitment to the EU’s sustainability standards. It is a deceptively simple but dangerous argument. Because it is simple – and the counter argument is rather complex – it is gaining traction in Parliament.’


The landing obligation, which came fully into force on January 2019, requires all quota species to be landed and counted against quota. For fisheries in which the scientific advice for one species caught in a mixed fishery is for zero catch of that species, this poses a dilemma. A species caught as unavoidable by-catch could close the whole fishery prematurely.

‘Applied legalistically, the MSY principle, alongside the requirements of the landing obligation, would mean closing whole fisheries in January for the rest of the year. In concrete terms, had this approach been applied for the quotas set in December 2018, for the 2019 fishery, applying the MSY principle within the context of the landing obligation would mean the immediate closure of the West of Scotland demersal fisheries, the Irish Sea nephrops fishery and Celtic Sea demersal fisheries.’

‘This drastic action would be required because there is zero catch scientific advice for, respectively, cod, whiting and cod in these fisheries. Put plainly, following a rigid interpretation of MSY at the 2018 December Council would have meant catastrophic social and economic consequences for thousands of fishing businesses and hundreds of fishing communities in Western Waters. The more purist NGOs could perhaps afford to be blasé about such an outcome but clearly ministers baulked at taking responsibility for such carnage. In the event, a difficult compromise was found.’

MSY as a slogan

‘The NGOs would have us believe that all that is needed to achieve sustainable fisheries is political will. The beauty of this formulae is its simplicity. The appeal is to the general public and politicians who, understandably, know little of the complexities of managing mixed fisheries within the context zero catch advice and the landing obligation. But reducing MSY to a slogan is dangerous,’ the NFFO warns, stating that embedded as a hard, legal, requirement, with an arbitrary timetable, this would:

• Limit fisheries managers’ ability to achieve optimum outcomes,

• Be impossible to achieve consistently from a biological point of view, as humans cannot control spawning success or the recruitment of young fish to the fishery each year

• Make international fisheries negotiations dance around a scientifically illiterate legal requirement

• Carry potentially dire social and economic consequences

‘None of these would be the intention but they would be the consequences of an inflexible, one-dimensional approach to MSY. The fishing industry has a deep interest in a management system that delivers high average yields of commercial species’ the NFFO states.

‘ICES science demonstrates that great progress has been made in achieving this objective across all the main species groups. As the UK leaves the EU it makes sense to retain MSY is as a principle, as an aspiration, and as an objective - but the consequences of giving it primacy over all other considerations would be disastrous.’


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