1 Mar 2011

EU proposals say fishermen ‘must land everything’

EU fishing regulations will end the practice of fishermen discarding millions of dead fish back into the sea. Tom Clarke says the “senseless waste” unites fishermen and environmental campaigners.

Speaking at a special conference in Brussels, the EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, said that so far the authorities had used only “technical measures” to tackle discards.

“But let’s be honest, if we continue this it is like treating a serious illness with aspirin: we have to recognise that our policy gives sometimes incentives to discarding,” she said.

In 2004 alone, an estimated 7.3 million tonnes of fish – 8 per cent of total EU catches – were dumped back in the sea, she said. Up to half the catch was thrown overboard by the European whitefish industry and as much as 70 per cent in the flatfish fishery.

“These figures are alarming,” she added. “I consider discarding of fish unethical, a waste of natural resources and a waste of fishermen’s effort.”

Under current Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) rules, fishing fleets governed by catch limits for certain species cannot land their “by-catch” – any species of fish they have netted accidentally or which take vessels over their allocated quota. The so-called “discard” is thrown back, dead, into the sea.

The UK Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, who also attended the conference, said: “Everybody wants to see an end to the disgraceful waste of huge amounts of fish having to be dumped back overboard, and the UK is leading the way in efforts to tackle the problem. I’m determined to keep pushing for reforms in Europe that prevent this waste, while fighting to protect our fishermen’s livelihoods.

“We need a new and sustainable CFP which protects our seas and manages vulnerable fish stocks better while allowing our fishermen to make a living and plan for the future.”

Environment Correspondent Tom Clarke on the complexity of abolishing 'fish discards'

The senseless waste of fish through discarding at sea is one of the rare issues on which fishermen and environmental campaigners agree. To fishermen it’s a valuable catch being wasted. To conservationists it’s a fast-vanishing marine resource being pointlessly killed without benefit to anyone.

All in the same boat on the issue of discards, they’ve done some effective campaigning. Look no further than Hugh’s Fish Fight which aired on Channel 4 in January led by campaigning Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and friends. Fishermen and Greenpeace united on the same cause. And policy makers seem to have taken notice. Not only is the EU seriously considering a ban at today’s talks in Brussels – the proposals have the support of some powerful member states like the UK.

But there is a catch. While no one is in favour of discards, how to go about getting rid of them threatens to split fishermen and campaigners.

Campaigners support EU proposals for a ban. It will end, at a stroke, the perversity of a system designed to protect fish stocks from killing them unnecessarily. Because it would require fishermen to land everything they catch from Dover sole to starfish it will also reveal, in detail, exactly what fishermen are bringing up in their nets and from where. This is crucial information that would improve efforts to manage dwindling fish stocks.

But fishermen say an outright ban starting in 2012 would simply put many out of business. The proposals state they must land everything, but all of it would count against a maximum total catch for each boat. This, they argue, would mean they would quickly reach their maximum quota without any guarantee they can catch valuable fish of a marketable size that they need to turn a profit.

The commission promise there will be concessions for fishermen, and support for them to switch to different practices that would reduce the amount of “non-target” species they catch. They also promise top phase in a ban to give time for fishermen to get used to enforcement measures like CCTV on boats and more frequent inspections. But all sides don't have long to reach an agreement.

Reform to the common fisheries policy, of which discards is just one of many problems, must be finalised by 2012.

Interviewed on Channel 4 News, the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, welcomed the “bold” move towards a ban on discards. The alternative would take too long, he warned.

“There may have been a time when a fleet could get away with relatively-large amounts of discards, but those times have gone,” he said. “I think we have to look at it whether it is done by a ban, it has to be done rapidly and we have to look at the elimination of discards within a matter of a few years.”

But Bertie Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, told the programme that a ban was the wrong starting point.

“Looking carefully for solutions is the correct starting point,” he said. “A ban is a bit like banning accidents – everybody would like that and it sounds reasonably logical and it is a great political spin, but there is no substance in it.

“If we have a blanket ban, that will remove flexibility too early. The only way we will be able to cope with this then is to have a fishing fleet of a fraction the size that it is. That will take it beneath the critical mass of havig a sustainable infrastructure and that will mean we will cease sustainable harvesting of fish from the sea.”

Government attack EU dead fish rules - Reuters

UK trials

UK trials are already going on with a new system in the North Sea cod fishery involving 23 English and Scottish vessels. The scheme counts all fish caught, including the “discard”, as part of the total cod quota, obliging fishermen to stop fishing once their tonnage limit is reached, regardless of species.

The Government says the system puts the responsibility on fishermen to use their skill and knowledge to fish more selectively. It increases the landed catch without increasing quotas, avoiding waste and helping stock conservation.

The Scottish Fisheries Minister, Richard Lochhead, said that Scotland’s fishermen were an example to follow after they employed the Conservation Credits Scheme.

“Across Europe, Scotland is recognised as being at the fore of innovative ways to address the nonsensical practice of discarding marketable fish back in the sea, dead,” he said.

Mr Lochhead says Scotland has worked effectively against discards, via the Conservation Credits Scheme and a “catch quota” trial which rewards fishermen with increased quota in return for no discards.

Since 2008, discards by Scottish whitefish vessels in the North Sea have fallen by half.

He said: “I urge Europe to look to Scotland’s example, where reductions in discards have been achieved at a faster rate than anywhere else in the EU, and not miss a golden opportunity to address the problems that the flawed Common Fisheries Policy is causing.”