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Discard ban can benefit fish and fishers, but sustainability must come first

It was hailed as a great victory for conservation, common sense and people power. Last year the European Commission finally voted to phase out the shameful practice of discarding hundreds of thousands…

Could the discard ban hinder more than it helps? Olivier Hoslet

It was hailed as a great victory for conservation, common sense and people power. Last year the European Commission finally voted to phase out the shameful practice of discarding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly good fish, either by-catch or target species caught over the allowable quota, as permitted by the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Although hundreds of scientists, NGOs, politicians and legislators worked behind the scenes to make this happen, the issue really hit the public consciousness through the work of the mop-haired part-time celebrity chef/eco-warrior, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. His Fish Fight TV series exposed the images of tonnes of dead fish being dumped overboard to the public. In fact his campaign was so successful that over 870,000 people signed his petition to end discards, and he was granted personal meetings with Maria Damanaki, the European Fisheries Commissioner.

So why are we now seeing headlines suggesting the discard ban could actually harm wildlife, and that Fish Fight’s campaign was misleading? Hugh was even given the Paxman treatment in a debate on Newsnight.

This renewed interest has been spurred by the publication of a paper in the journal Nature Communications by Professor Mike Heath and colleagues at the University of Strathclyde that examines the knock-on effects of a discard ban.

Using an ecosystem model of the North Sea, the paper’s authors examined the effect of two different management approaches. The first simulated the fishers' obligation to land all catch (the discard ban), including undersize (ie, juvenile) or unwanted (ie, by-catch) fish, by inflating the landing quotas accordingly. The second simulated the same landing obligation, but added an element which added fishers efforts to be more selective and avoid unwanted catch by maintaining lower quotas.

Not surprisingly, the first option had negative effects on marine ecosystems. Not only would it result in increased pressure on fish stocks – it removes more fish from the sea – but by removing the discards it would also remove a source of food scavenged upon by seabirds, marine mammals and seabed creatures. There might be some short-term economic benefits to fishers, but in the long term the catch rates are likely to be unsustainable, and the oceans in general will suffer.

This is the story that has been seized upon by the media and some sections of the fishing industry, because it is the option being considered by the European Commission. Surely no one is suggesting that we go back to the bad old days and try to maintain a marine ecosystem that relies on us throwing away 30-40% of the fish we catch each year? In the North Sea alone, this is can account for hundreds of thousands of tonnes each year. And despite some counter-claims this week, this rate of discarding has remained relatively constant for several decades.

The second management scenario, which encourages more selective fishing, has to be the better way to go. That way catch rates are more sustainable, scientists gain better data on the fisheries, and the previously discarded material stays in the sea where it can be part of a more natural food chain.

What evidence is there that the discard ban, or to be more politically correct, landing obligation, will work? Discard bans have been successfully implemented elsewhere in the world, including in the Alaskan and British Columbian groundfish trawl fisheries, and fisheries in New Zealand, Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian waters.

A couple of years ago one of my MSc students, Ben Diamond, and I examined the effectiveness of the Norwegian discard ban and whether or not a similar policy should be introduced to the North Sea. Norway introduced a discard ban for cod and haddock in 1987, and has progressively applied it to more species since. Instead of increasing pressure on fish stocks, the discard ban, in combination with real-time closures of waters that contain high concentrations of juvenile fish, has encouraged fishermen to install fishing gear modifications that are more selective in the fish they catch.

As a result, improving data and understanding of fishing mortality has led to better management advice and more sensible fishing quotas. There were some short-term economic costs to the fishing industry, but today the Norwegian and Barents Sea fisheries are among the most prosperous in the world. It’s about time that a similar system is introduced in the North Sea, and in fact as widely as possible throughout European waters.

When the European Commission comes to decide on how to implement the CFP reform, we must hope it will ignore those lobbying for short-term interests, and instead take note of the long-term success of our northern neighbours.