The EU Fisheries Minister Maria Damanaki’s announcement of her intention to phase out the discarding of fish at sea was a welcome bit of common sense.
With estimates of discards in the North Sea alone averaging around three quarters of a million tons of fish every year, it is obvious that such an absurd waste of life and money should not be allowed to continue. Damanaki told the Commission ‘I consider discarding of fish unethical, a waste of natural resources and a waste of fishermen’s effort. But I would like to go further – since our stocks are declining these figures are not justifiable any more.’ Fine words, let us hope such intentions can survive the opposition of fishing nations such as Spain and Portugal.
Her announcement was particularly welcome as a Parliamentary Committee decided that the practice of discarding edible fish at sea should be allowed to continue until at least 2020. Well done, guys, the whole of Europe understands the absurdity of discards and you decide that it should carry on unchecked for another ten years.
Of course, the discards issue is certainly not simple and an immediate outright ban would not be enforceable. Fishermen throw fish back into the sea for many reasons – because they don’t have the quota to land them, because they are too small or need to keep room on the boat for more valuable fish. Behind this ludicrous state of affairs is the quotas system imposed by the Common Fisheries Policy(CFP). The CFP was never designed to protect fish stocks, its aim was simply to prevent squabbles between nation states. With so many fish species under such pressure, now it is clearly time for it to be completely rewritten. Hopefully, that will happen, but in the meantime workable solutions to the discards issue have to be found.
A number of suggestions have been put forward. Catch Quotas is one idea, whereby the fishermen land everything they catch and the quota is then designed to keep that within sustainable levels. That would, however, need fishermen to accept on-board CCTV and detailed monitoring of their catch. Another proposal is to base the quota on fishing effort – limiting the time that can be spent at sea, but allowing all the catch to be landed. However, the most logical alternative is to change fishing techniques to improve the catch of the target species and so reduce the by-catch in the first place.
Fishermen are notoriously reluctant to alter their fishing methods. However, a project organised by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (Cefas), called Project 50%, tried something so obvious that it would never have occurred to a government official – talking to the fishermen themselves. They asked a group of Devon beam trawlermen how they could better target the species they were after and then gave them the financial help to redesign the fishing gear according to their suggestions. The astonishing result was an average discard reduction of 52 per cent, with the best boat achieving a 69 per cent drop. A huge reduction, simply by working with fishermen, instead of just dictating to them. If you legislate to create a situation where everything caught has to be landed, and there is a limited time at sea to make that catch, fishermen will have a very strong incentive to target their chosen species as accurately as possible.