Bringing Europe together on discards

02 Feb 2012
Hugh’s Fish Fight was set up to try to change discard laws

Hugh’s Fish Fight was set up to try to change discard laws

It was a move seen by many as long overdue, but 2011 was to be the year that Europe was to come together as one to change the rules on discards forever.

And it was a change that had to be made - with over 800,000 members of the public signing a petition to put an end to discards in European waters, reports Adrian Tatum.

In a UK campaign, Hugh’s Fish Fight, television presenter and chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, made a documentary which showed that half the fish caught in the North Sea were being thrown back into the sea, dead, because of EU laws.

Hugh’s Fish Fight was set up to try to change those laws and was supported by a wide coalition of environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and, a growing number of fishermen and policy makers too.

The response from the public was overwhelming. As a direct result of the campaign, the British Government decided to fund a six month study into what would happen if a discard ban was introduced.

In July, the European Commission published its proposals for a new Common Fisheries Policy, including for the first time, recommendations for a discard ban.

At the moment, the main problem is that in a mixed fishery, fishermen cannot control the species that they catch. Because discards are not monitored, it is difficult to know exactly how many fish are being thrown away. The EU estimates that in the North Sea, discards are between 40% and 60% of the total catch.

Decision
EU Fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki made a decision in March 2011 to try and change the policy on discards. She tells World Fishing & Aquaculture: “Discards are among the best examples for the shortcomings of the CFP and they are impossible to justify to fishermen or the public. Fishermen across Europe have taken a number of good initiatives to decrease discards, but the initiatives are still too scattered across Europe. In the meantime public opinion is quickly building up against this wasteful practice.

“The Commission is proposing a gradual approach in three steps: pelagic species in 2014 (including in the Mediterranean), most valuable demersal species (cod, hake and sole) in 2015, and other species in 2016. The discard ban would cover the listed species, regardless of whether they are managed with quota or effort.

“A clear timetable for a discard ban will foster better co-operation between scientists and fishermen. It will also be a driver to avoid unwanted catches and will deliver a level playing field to change the fishing strategies of fishermen.”

The EU’s challenge now is to join together the various plans already in place around Europe.

The ministers of fisheries in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have already signed a joint declaration in forbidding discards of fish in the waters of Skagerrak.

“A ban on discards in Skagerrak marks a milestone in our efforts to ensure sustainable management of our joint marine resources,” says Norway’s Minister of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs Lisbeth Berg-Hansen. “I hope this will also have a positive impact on other waters and that we are able to influence reforms in the right direction. We are now working on behalf of future fishermen and consumers of seafood.

“We are seeing the issue of discards on the agenda both regionally and globally. In this context, Norway, Sweden and Denmark wish to be in the forefront by implementing a ban on discards in the waters of Skagerrak. While Skagerrak geographically speaking is a small ocean area, it is nevertheless important for those living around the coasts in the area and for fishermen from our three countries,” adds Ms Berg-Hansen. 

Days at sea
As part of EU fisheries talks in December, the UK government said putting a stop to proposals for a massive cut in the number of days that fishermen are allowed to spend at sea has helped the case to make improvement in discards.

UK fishermen were facing devastating reductions to the amount of time they could spend at sea catching their quota as part of the Cod Recovery Plan. The threatened reductions not only put in jeopardy the livelihoods of UK fishermen but would have also led to increased discards.

Fishermen in all countries will still face an expected reduction in the amount of time they are allowed to fish but this concession from the commission will allow the UK to develop more conservation measures and provide incentives for fishermen to take them up.

But the waste of thousands of tonnes of dead fish being thrown back into the sea could be stopped if fishermen are required to count all the fish they catch as part of their quota, UK trials have also shown.

Published last year, a new report showed that fishermen taking part in the UK’s Catch Quota trials have stopped throwing away fish.

It also showed that fishermen involved in the trials are discarding less than 1% of the cod and sole they catch. This is far less than the 21% average across the EU for North Sea cod and the estimated 9% of sole discarded by all English and Welsh vessels in the Western Channel. Catches of undersized fish in the trial are also low, suggesting that boats are now fishing more selectively.

Boats in the trials with CCTV cameras have to keep all the fish they catch but are rewarded with extra quota. Findings from 15 boats in England have seen discards of less than 1%. There are also similar trials in Scotland.

Spanish pressure
And, at the time of writing, it was reported that the incoming Spanish government was coming under intense pressure to fall in line with EU proposals to ban discards after a leaked document showed that the previous government was planning to derail the plans.

The government must now choose between supporting its new allies in the EU, on which the country’s economic future depends, or bowing to its powerful fishing industry.

According to The Guardian newspaper in the UK, Spain’s previous administration was plotting a last-ditch attempt to bring down the reforms, and allow Spanish fishermen to continue throwing away edible fish as they have been doing so for decades.

But Maria Damanaki is determined changes should come from the EU and be bold. She said that she was now aware of over 70 projects from the fishing industry to reduce discards.

Many of these projects have already delivered concrete results. In Brittany and in Sweden prawn fishermen are using special nets to avoid unwanted bycatch. In Northern Ireland fishermen are now using nets that decrease whitefish discards by half.

She said that technology to reduce discards exists, but fishermen are not using it on a wide scale, because they have to invest in new gear and because they lose part of the target species. This means any fisherman who uses more selective gear puts himself at a competitive disadvantage relative to others engaged in same fishery. “The only way to have a level playing field here is to have a discard ban. This will benefit the fishermen that are already doing something against discards, because their competitors have to play by the same rules.”

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