Science & Environment

'Unethical' fish discards must end, says EU commission

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Media captionHugh Fearnley-Whittingstall backs 'bold move'

The European Commission has set out ideas for ending fish discards.

Currently, EU boats in the North Sea have to throw away up to half of what they catch to stay within their quotas.

Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki proposes instead to regulate fleets through limits on fishing time and greater use of measures such as CCTV.

She discussed the ideas with delegates from EU member states in Brussels on Tuesday, with the aim of finalising plans later in the year.

She hopes to introduce a discard ban as part of a reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2013.

UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon said the atmosphere had been positive.

"We are all agreed - tackling the waste of discards must be a top priority," he said.

"Reform of the CFP will help, but we shouldn't wait another two years - we need to get on and deliver discard reductions now by effective practical measures."

During the meeting, Ms Damanaki told ministers that business as usual was not an option.

"I consider discarding of fish unethical, a waste of natural resources and a waste of fishermen's effort," she said.

"If we continue with our policy, then we will soon face a situation where the production capacity of marine ecosystems is at risk; [and] discarding will erode the economic basis of our fishermen and our coastal regions."

Consumers, she warned, would then turn away from fish because it would be seen as a tainted product.

In the UK, a petition started by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall asking EU leaders to "stop this unacceptable and shameful practice" is said to have gathered more than 650,000 signatures.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said the petition and the associated Fish Fight campaign had over-simplified the issue.

"The proposal from Maria Damanaki for a discards ban amounts to a draconian step too far," he said.

"It is a knee-jerk response to populist TV coverage which has accurately described the problem, but which offers no solutions."

But Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall said reforming the system would work for fishermen, not against them.

"Fishermen in Scotland and everywhere else want to be able to land and sell pretty much all the fish they catch," he told the BBC.

"We're talking about millions of tonnes of prime cod, haddock and coly - the bulk of the discard is prime catch that's over quota, and that has to stop.

"The long-term aim is to enable fishermen to land more fish, not less."

Ms Damanaki also reassured fishermen that there would not be an end to their livelihoods.

Controlling effort

The commission's ideas are sketched out in a four-page document - obtained by BBC News - that explores ways of constraining fishing if discards are banned.

"The reasons for discarding are EU and national legislation, not well suited for EU waters, where the majority of catches are from mixed fisheries, as well as financial interests of the fishing industry to keep only more valuable fish on board," it says.

Currently, fishermen have to discard fish when they exceed their quota for that species, or when they net fish that are too young or too small.

Ms Damanaki suggests:

  • controlling "fishing effort", by limiting the amount of time boats can spend at sea and the places where they can fish
  • counting all fish landed against quotas
  • closing "mixed fisheries" when the maximum quota of one species in it has been caught
  • expanding the use of CCTV, observers, electronic logbooks and monitoring of ports

Although conservation groups are keen to see discarding end, they also have concerns that any new regulatory framework must not open up a free-for-all.

Image caption UK fishermen have been trialling schemes aimed at curbing catches of cod

"Banning discarding would be a very good step forward in the quest to stop overfishing in EU waters and by the EU fleet," said Uta Bellion, director of the Pew Environment Group's European Marine Programme.

"However, this needs to be coupled with catch limits that follow scientific advice based on the precautionary principle, and effective monitoring and control," she told BBC News.

The UK government want the commission to look at projects in British waters that have succeeded in reducing the volume of discards.

Scotland's Conservation Credits Scheme restricts fishing gear and obliges skippers to call a closure if they find they are catching juveniles or spawning fish. In return, they gain additional fishing days.

The UK and Scottish governments have also been trialling a Catch Quota Scheme for cod, under which all fish landed count towards a quota.

Boats have to use Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) equipment.

Mr Benyon's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants the revamped CFP to be less prescriptive, encouraging each government to adopt measures appropriate to its own fleet and fishery.

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