Commission has Lost its way on Discards

26th November 2010 in Discards, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

The Commission seems to have lost its way on discards. Although the rhetoric is still there - condemning the waste involved in the many hundreds of thousands of tonnes that are discarded each year

. Although the rhetoric is still there - condemning the waste involved in the many hundreds of thousands of tonnes that are discarded each year - there is no sign in the Commission’s current policies of any sense of urgency, or indeed sense of direction.

Discards were a priority for the previous Commissioner, Joe Borg, although he, latterly, too slipped from promoting practical, realistic, discard reduction programmes to empty rhetoric and gesture politics: the unworkable and unenforceable ban on high-grading being a case in point. The Commission will never be able to take the moral high-ground on discards for as long as its policy approach ignores the issue and its legislation in technical measures, and TACs and quotas require vessels to discard.

No one is pretending that the solving discard issue is easy. There is no silver bullet. There are many different reasons in many different fisheries for discarding and each one must be addressed individually. Sometimes the issue is lack of selectivity in fishing gear, as fishing vessels struggle financially to keep their heads above water; sometimes the issue is low value species for which markets are not available. Often however, discards result directly from the rigidity of the regulatory regime.

Fishing Industry Initiatives

In many ways the baton on discard reduction has passed from the Commission to the fishing industry working with scientists. The UK’s 50% project, where South West beam trawlers successfully achieved a 50% reduction in discards through changes in gear design conceived by the participating skippers is a fantastic example of what can be achieved if the right conditions are put in place. In addition to the 50% Project, Real Time Closures (which encourage cod avoidance) the Catch Quota Project (where all catches of cod are fully documented ) and many other initiatives, are all showing the way forward. All of these successful initiatives have one common feature: they all involve fishermen in the design and implementation of the project, whether this is at a vessel, regional or national level.

Regulatory Discards

Releasing fishermen’s practical understanding of their fisheries to develop successful discard programmes is not helped if at the same time the Commission is driving policy approaches that increase discards. The current Technical Conservation Regulation, generates discards across the demersal fleet on a daily basis, through its catch composition rules. Likewise, setting of TACs on the basis of the Commission’s proposals has been a major source of increased discarding in the mixed fisheries. The following fisheries are anticipated to witness an increase in discards if the Commission’s proposals are adopted unchanged at the December Council:

North Sea cod

North Sea whiting

Skates and rays





Channel Cod

Area VII Haddock

Area fg Plaice

Area VII Sole hjk

Area VII Plaice hjk

North Sea Turbot and Dabs

Channel Plaice

North Sea Cod Discards

In the case of North Sea cod –a fishery that has been under the most severe recovery measures for over a decade, STECF - the Commission’s scientific quality control committee - estimates that:

“ ….if fully implemented, the provisions of the [cod] management plan are likely to result in a decrease in fishing effort for the main fleets that catch cod, but will have the perverse result of leading to increased discarding of cod unless additional measures to avoid catching cod can be introduced”.

STECF October 2010

STECF advises that only a 75% reduction in fishing effort (which it concedes would extinguish the viability of fishing fleets of many North Sea member states), or a radically different approach to setting the TAC will secure a reduction in discards in 2011. This, in restrained scientific language, amounts to a condemnation of the current cod plan as a bankrupt policy. A failure to take a different approach will result in discards of 39,000 tonnes, a truly shocking amount. It is almost inevitable as night follows day, that the Commission will take the tried, tested and failed approach and seek to persuade ministers to adopt an approach that will cut effort leading to the elimination of their fleets.

STECF however points to the alternative – a TAC of 71,000 tonnes rather than 32,000 tonnes and a new focus on cod avoidance, with all cod caught counting against the TAC.

It may not be possible to make this leap in one year but there is a stark choice – remain wedded to an approach that delivers failure and massive discards, or change of direction to economic viability, involvement of skippers and the support of the industry in successful cod avoidance, dramatic reduction in discards and consequent reduction in fishing mortality towards target levels. This will be of the utmost importance for the review of the cod Management Plan next year.

Ongoing Discards Reduction: Irish Sea, South West, North Sea

It is important to appreciate that the discard picture is uneven; some fisheries for a variety of reasons have been progressively been reducing discard rates in recent years. This has sometimes been a response to restrictions brought in to rebuild the cod stocks but sometimes to improve quality of the catch, or for other reasons. The Northern Irish Sea fleet fleets has achieved remarkably low levels of cod discards, confirmed by an extensive programme of catch sampling; the South West fleets, working with scientists in a fisheries science partnership successfully reduced discards in the anglerfish fishery; and overall the English North Sea fleet, in part responding to the need for cod avoidance to avoid a range of restrictions, has equally achieved low discards of cod. All these positive examples have three common characteristics:

  • The measures put in place are tailored to the specifics of the fishery concerned
  • The skippers and their organisations were centrally involved in the design of the initiatives
  • Fishermen have worked collaboratively to achieve results

Discards and the CFP

Discards are a waste of the resource, impede recovery plans often represent a direct loss of earnings for fishing vessels, have a range of causes and damage the fishing industry’s reputation. The Commission’s initiative to reduce discards has stalled, giving rise to initiatives such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fight for Fish campaign, which give voice to public concerns on the issue of discards.

In a sense the Commission’s failure is not a surprise. The European Commission and the Common Fisheries Policy are simply not constructed in a way that allows them to successfully generate initiatives at individual fishery level. This is why the discards issue is also a question of CFP reform. Blanket and blunt legislative measures such as the ban on high-grading introduced in 2008 have achieved nothing and will achieve nothing. Until there is a radical decentralisation of the CFP little will be achieved. But this does not relieve the Commission from responsibility. In the short term it could work consistently to at least not increase discarding when setting TACs and in its other objectives. Discards are a massive problem; the least the Commission can do, pending reform of the CFP, is not make matters worse.