Illegal discarding threat to EU fish marketing

01 Sep 2017
Discarding threat

Independent reports highlight the risk of weak enforcement, continued discarding despite the ban and risks of loss of MSC status

EU fishermen could see many of their most important fisheries downgraded to illegal IUU status if they continue to discard fish in contravention of the landings obligation (LO), reports Tom Ainsworth.

This could have severe marketing repercussions, with the loss of MSC and other eco-labels and major processors ceasing to source fish from downgraded fisheries.​

This was the warning sounded by one of the most experienced and respected players in the global seafood industry, Mike Mitchell of consultancy Fair Seas Ltd and until 2015 a director of seafood giant Young’s Seafood, where he headed sustainable sourcing and traceability for some years.

Mr Mitchell told a meeting in the UK: “For the first time in many years, the market faces the very real prospect that some EU fishery products in their supply chains are likely to be sourced from vessels that are fishing illegally.

“Illegal discarding within certified sustainable fisheries threatens the viability and reputation of consumer-facing sustainability schemes.”

Addressing a recent meeting of the UK Sea Fish Industry Authority’s discards action group (DAG) he said seafood brands and retailers would inevitably face NGO and media questions about alleged illegality (IUU) in their supply chains due to the risk of illegal discarding.

He told the DAG continued discarding and IUU fishing would damage consumer confidence that would be very hard to restore if lost. Referring to the scandal a few years ago in Europe when horsemeat was substituted for beef, he said this had “profound consequences” for the food industry – including seafood – and some brands had never recovered.

“After a decade of hard work in legitimising fishing effort, it seemed that the dark legacy of wanton overfishing and black market fish landings had become a thing of the past,” said Mike Mitchell, who is widely considered to be one of the industry’s most senior and influential seafood executives.

“But, because of implementation challenges of the landing obligation (LO) in some sectors, there is a tacit understanding that some vessels are continuing to discard despite the introduction of the discard ban.”

He said two independent reports had highlighted the risk of weak enforcement, continued discarding despite the ban and risks of loss of MSC status. EU demersal trawl fisheries were at particular risk of failing MSC assessment.

The Scheveningen Control Expert Group had said that of 12 North Sea trawl fisheries assessed, four were considered to represent a ‘high or very high’ risk of illegal discarding.

Mike Mitchell said there was also evidence of continuing discarding from the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA), ICES estimates of unaccounted mortality, and landings into the fishmeal sector.

He told the DAG that Miguel Nuevo of EFCA had said at an LO workshop in Vigo in May that ‘there appeared to be a problem in reporting discards’ in the Baltic Sea. Out of five demersal fishing gear groups EFCA assessed in different areas of the Baltic, two were considered to be at ‘high risk’ of illegal discarding and one ‘medium risk’. Two were ‘low risk’.

Miguel Nuevo had said he believed it would be even harder to implement the LO in the North Sea than in the Baltic. There, despite the LO applying to cod since 2015, landings of cod below the minimum size (MCRS) of 35cm are ‘very low’ and discarding was still occurring. He said it was increasingly likely that Baltic cod’s sustainability rating would be downgraded because of continuing illegal discarding.

Mike Mitchell said another indication that discarding was continuing was the low level of fish below the minimum size being sent to fishmeal factories.

Since the introduction of the LO there had been minimal volume sold into the fishmeal sector in Aberdeen (serviced by Fraserburgh and Peterhead) and zero volume into Grimsby (serviced by all English ports).

He said the low uptake of product into fishmeal production in both Aberdeen and Grimsby fishmeal plants was not “absolute evidence” that discarding is continuing, but “may be considered a robust indicator”.

Emphasising that fully documented fisheries are essential for successful fisheries management and attaining MSY, Mike Mitchell said: “Ignoring illegality because it is inconvenient and problematic is wrong.” Difficulties in implementing the LO should not mean sacrificing properly documented catches.

Seafood trade call for action

Mike Mitchell told the DAG that in October last year seafood brands and retailers wrote to the DEFRA fisheries minister urging transparent action to prevent IUU discarding in UK fisheries. Then, in May this year, a wider coalition of retailers and processors had agreed a joint position on the issue of IUU discarding through their retail (BRC) and processing (PTF/FDF) trade federations. Retailers and brand owners have been contacting their fish suppliers to seek assurances of no IUU discarding

The Joint Position Statement says effective implementation of current legislation is essential ‘to ensure the continued biological and economic sustainability of European fisheries including MSC-certified fisheries’ and that fully documented fisheries are an essential management tool.

The joint position supports five initiatives including:

* Increased selectivity in fishing activities both in terms of fishing practice and gear development.

* Comprehensive and cost-effective monitoring and enforcement of measures.

* Innovation in access to quota – including the creation of new, more flexible quota trading platforms.

* Incentivising innovation in fishing practices to address potential choke situations.

Mike Mitchell said there could be no compromise on legal sourcing of fish. “The market requires that there is no illegal practice in up-stream supply chains,” he concluded.

Practical actions were needed urgently “to prevent the loss of buyer access to EU catches on the basis of a failure of legal compliance”.