Hugh on the Back Foot

16th May 2014 in Discards

It is perhaps not surprising that Hugh’s Fish Fight is now mounting a rather desperate attempt to shore up the credibility of its campaign to ban discards, after a powerful piece in the Times suggested that the public and politicians were misled into supporting an EU discard ban.

Hugh on the Back Foot

Evidence was presented to the Fish Fight campaign to show that discards in our fisheries were not a static or growing problem but were in fact, being steadily reduced. The NFFO advised Hugh, on film, that discarding by the English fleet had been reduced by 50% over the previous decade. That statistic did not appear in any of his programmes.

Information on discard trends have been reinforced more recently by further work in ICES, that confirms that the absolute amount of discards in the North Sea roundfish fisheries (one of those in which discards have historically been very high) have been reduced by 90% over the last 20 years. There are a number of reasons for this drastic reduction including, a significantly smaller fleet, using more selective gear, over a period of lower recruitment.

The statistics on the general discard trends were there at the time, for anyone who cared to look, as Hugh’s campaign reached its crescendo. The point is that Hugh’s Fish Fight didn’t look very hard for them, presumably because they would have spoiled a rather simple narrative of a hero at the head of a crusade. Looking like a Johnny-come-lately who arrived at the scene after 90% of the work has been done wouldn’t carry quite the same cache. The central point is that if Hugh was interested in a fair, balanced picture his team had a responsibility to look into the issue and the statistics more deeply. They didn’t.

The alternative conclusion is that they knew but took the cynical decision to ignore them.


This Federation has taken the view that discards are a major problem in some of our fisheries and that the Common fisheries Policy has amplified the problem by the way it has managed its fisheries. That much we have in common with Hugh.

Where we part company with Hugh is his belief is that an EU ban is the best way to secure further progress is through a top-down blanket ban (albeit with some scope for flexibilities and exemptions)

Fishermen from right around the coast feel aggrieved that they now face a period of uncertainty and change on a massive scale, with no guaranteed that their businesses will survive, to solve a problem that was already well on its way to being solved. That is not to be complacent about discards, it is to take a page out of the Norwegian experience, from which we can learn that a steady, incremental approach, resolving issues as they arise is the correct way to reduce discards; and that achieving other important fisheries objectives such as high yields, high levels of compliance and of course, profitable as well as sustainable fisheries should not be lost.

Hugh’s blog makes some other points on which it is important to comment:

  • There is less fish out there to catch: For Hugh to claim in his most recent blog that there are fewer discards because there “is less fish out there to catch” than in the early 1990s, suggests to us that if he is to continue as a campaigner in fisheries he should spend less time with his frying pan and more time studying ICES stock assessments. Fishing mortality has reduced by 50% since 2000 and the stocks are responding, sometimes dramatically.
  • Discards are down because of effort control (Days at Sea limits): Effort control introduced under the Cod Recovery Plan will have had very little impact on discards because so few vessels were actually constrained by it; the reduction in fleet days at sea is mainly because of the reduction in the size of the fleet.
  • The Discard Rate in the North Sea Cod Fishery has increased: Of course it has. The TACs in this mixed fishery have been set artificially low for several years in relation to the abundance because NS cod is seen as an iconic species in the media spotlight which must be rebuilt as rapidly as possible. Unless additional measures such as the Catch Quota Trials are made to work, the discard rate will increase.


The North Sea Roundfish fishery is of course only one fishery, although one which historically had a serious discard problem.

On the most recent statistics, 40% of the catch in the North Sea is discarded. But 80% of that 40% is comprised of two species: plaice and dab. These are big tonnages. A lot of this is caught in the sole fishery where further selectivity without losing the valuable sole catch is very difficult.

However, scientists reckon that up to 6o% of plaice survive (depending on season, gear, length of tow etc). We think therefore plaice is likely to be a candidate for a high survival exemption. And the problem with dab is that they have low market value although they are perfectly edible. That is why we suggest that celebrity chefs in future should devote their main energies to encouraging their consumption.

All this highlights the complexity of the issues and the need for a fishery-by-fishery approach.

Hugh’s credibility as a campaigner may have been dented but one thing is certain, the EU landings obligation will come into force for the main demersal fisheries on January 1 2016. How the ban is implemented will be critical. If the regional discard plans developed by member states are well thought through, make intelligent use of the quota flexibilities and exemptions, we as an industry will do our bit to adapt. And there are potentially some good things in the approach, such as the incentives for skippers to fish more selectively; and the removal of those EU rules which generate discards. It is however a high risk strategy both in terms of vessel and fleet viability and losing undermining the progress towards sustainable fishing that has been made over the last 15 years or so.

NFFO Chief Executive Barrie Deas debating the discard ban with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on Newsnight