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We must stop committing valuable fish to a watery grave

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…

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”.

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. George Michaelson


    If I am allowed by law to only catch 10 tonnes of a given species, but bycatch has 10 tonnes of weight limit too, how in practice do I enforce a weight limit in bycatch if I am still hunting my initial 10 tonnes of specific-species limit?

    Or, is the bycatch limit, or the species-specific limit a 'first ends' case where whichever is tripped first, causes the end of the days trawl?

    If I am chasing species A, by weight limit, and I catch species B in bycatch, which also has a weight limit, but…

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  2. Andy Saunders


    Just anticipating some possible confusion. There is quite a difference between bycatch of non-targeted species (and of unwanted species), and overcatch of quota in a quota-controlled fishery.

    There is also a huge difference between the systems used in the EU and other countries (including Australia). In Australia, overcatch of quota in Commonwealth fisheries is ameliorated by the fisher having a few days to arrange quota post-landing (i.e. by leasing from other quota-holders). If they discard instead, the discards are deducted from the TAC (at a fishery level, based on observer coverage, rather than individual fishers' quota - a bit of a defect in the system). The EU system is very different (read... worse). This is an active area of research/management focus, so might change soonish.

    Non-commercial (junk) bycatch is different - generally discarded in Australia. Similar issues to the EU. Mostly managed by gear restrictions (BRDs).

    1. George Michaelson


      In reply to Andy Saunders

      smashing explanation! thanks. if we had opportunistic fishmeal factories following the fleet, we could sell junk bycatch sensibly. does disgard cause other problems like excess biomass on the seabed? I can imagine that fishing close to fragile ecosystems this is not good (sea grass beds?)

      the lease/sale to other quota holders makes a lot of sense. the NPV of owning catch rights but not expending fuel/boat costs, and then using it to buy surplus from returning fishers is like a market enabler. was that designed into the system?

    2. Andy Saunders


      In reply to George Michaelson

      George, correct in almost everything. Not sure such things as floating fishmeal factories exist or are feasible...

      Leasing is designed into the Commonwealth system, although it hasn't worked perfectly (not much liquidity/visibility). Most lease trades are done "at the bar" rather than on an open market. I think the flow-on effects of leasing are yet to fully percolate through the system.

      Other jurisdictions vary - leasing is sometimes regarded as a political move (it enables those dreadful "absentee landlords").

      Yes, fishing over seagrass is not good. As is bottom-trawling in almost all circumstances.