We must stop committing valuable fish to a watery grave

In the hold, but for how long? Wasting millions of tonnes of seafood is a tragedy. Maurice McDonald/PA Archive

In European waters controlled by the EU Common Fisheries Policy, the discarding of fish overboard has long been condemned by environmentalists and regretted by fishers. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation the northeast Atlantic experiences the highest level of discards in the world, estimated at 1.3m tonnes a year. The European Commission estimates these discards account for a quarter (23%) of the total catch.

Why throw away fish? Quotas regulate the amount of fish caught in particular fishing grounds over a period of time. As they are based on the fish landed at port, not caught at sea, fishers are legally obliged to discard any fish over their quota. They may also discard less valuable fish to make room for premium species, or throw overboard bycatch - anything deemed uncommercial, unwanted, or for which the skipper has no quota to land. Minimum Landing Size restrictions, designed to protect immature fish until they have had a chance to spawn, nevertheless apply only to landed fish, so those caught at sea must be thrown back.

Discarding is an extraordinary waste of a valuable natural resource. Almost all will be thrown back dead. Numerous efforts have been made to reduce the level of discarding, from nets designed to be species-specific and allow through immature fish, to fishing ground closures, or incentives for skippers to reduce discards. A more radical proposition has come from TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign: a total EU discard ban.

Norway, Europe’s largest fisher, has banned discards on its vessels for 25 years. This year Sweden, Denmark and Norway introduced a discard ban on 15 species in the Skagerrak Straight that lies between the countries. But enforcing a ban is difficult in the waters of the North Sea where the greater variety of fish makes it harder to avoid bycatch.

However, the current fisheries policy reform has provided the opportunity to mobilise public support. In 2011, the European Commission presented proposals for an absolute discard ban. The following year the EU Fisheries Council agreed in principle, and in February the European Parliament voted by four to one for discard ban proposals. Their recommended phased implementation between 2014 and 2017, but this month EU Fisheries Ministers agreed a watered down package that allows a 5% discard rate, to be introduced between 2015 and 2019. This fell short of fish-loving environmentalists’ demands, who will press the European Parliament to resist the dilution of the original proposals.

Proponents of a ban claim that discarding edible fish is ethically indefensible at a time when fish stocks are dwindling. A Seafish authority report drawn up by Cefas (the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science) found many perfectly marketable uses for bycatch - human or animal consumption, organic fertiliser, frozen bait, and as biomass for energy generation. Fish meal and fish oil from discards could be used to meet the growing demand for fish farm feed and Omega 3 health supplements.

Those who oppose a blanket ban on discards point out that bycatch is unavoidable, and that it will be difficult to find outlets for landed fish for which no express demand exists. Commercial outlets are far from fishing ports, and the only three fishmeal plants in Britain are in Shetland, Aberdeen and Grimsby. Without established demand or market, the price (around £150 per tonne) will be too low for fishers to make a living. Conversely, opponents also claim that if the price paid was too high fishers would stop fishing selectively, turning the conservation aim of the ban on its head.

There are also practical problems: the cost of installing CCTV to monitor fishers at sea, and where to store bycatch - should it take up space in the cool room or be kept on deck to rot? Small fishing boats will be particularly hard hit, as their boats are unsuitable to equip with selective fishing gear and inshore waters by their nature contain many varied species.

It’s unclear on the final form an EU ban will take, but it is clear that there will be one - the political and public momentum in its favour is overwhelming. Almost a million people signed up to an online campaign, and the Fish Fight campaign itself was referred to by EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki as key to driving negotiations forward.

In the 30-year history of the Common Fisheries Policy, there has never been a shift in policy that originated from such an upswell of popular demand. Perhaps now the policy will at last live up to its self-proclaimed mission of “consultative governance”.