Discarding fish is no longer ethically justifiable and must be banned before the balance of life in the seas is destroyed, the European fisheries commissioner has warned.
Maria Damanaki told fisheries ministers that throwing away fish was wasteful, unethical, damaging and must end. She said other measures designed to limit discards had been tried but were as effective as "treating a serious illness with Aspirin".
Her call for a Europe-wide ban on discards came as Britain, Denmark, France and Germany signed an accord in which they called for the wholesale reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
In their declaration, the four nations demanded that outlawing discards be made a priority and that the quota system, in which fish can be thrown away at sea, be replaced with a catch quota system in which every fish caught had to be landed.
Ms Damanaki issued her ultimatum to fishing nations less than two months after the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the problem of discards in a series of television broadcasts billed as Hugh's Big Fish Fight. More than 650,000 people have signed up to the Fish Fight campaign and its impact was acknowledged by the commissioner when she made her speech.
She called ministers and MEPs to Brussels to demand that the practice of discards be ended, telling them that it was eroding the "economic basis" on which the fishing industry had been built and unless changes were introduced "fishermen and their families will pay the bill".
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) calculated in 2004 that 8 per cent of the fish caught each year – or 7.3 million tons – were thrown back, virtually all of them dead or dying, and that some of Europe's fisheries were much worse.
More recently, the UNFAO estimated that 13 per cent of North Atlantic catches – about 1.3 million tons – were thrown over the side, with up to 880,000 tons from the North Sea.
Ms Damanaki cited the European flatfish industry as being among the most wasteful, with about 70 per cent of catches being discarded, along with the whitefish fishery which tosses half of its catch overboard.
The issue was addressed as part of a wider reform of Europe's Common Fisheries Policy which, Ms Damanaki said, must in the future have "sustainability written all over it".
The proposals, which are supported by the British fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, are likely to face stiff opposition from countries such as Spain, but Ms Damanaki said that unless they acted now, the issue would "come back to haunt us". She said: "I consider the discarding of fish unethical, a waste of natural resources and a waste of fishermen's effort."
Lines of battle
1.3m Quantity, in tonnes, of fish and other marine animals tossed back over the sides of fishing boats after being caught.
70 Number of UK fishing vessels piloting the catch quota system in which every fish is landed.
£40m Value of fish that are thrown back every year by the Scottish fishing fleet.
653,400 Number of people signed up in support of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaign to end discards.
80% Proportion of European fisheries that are considered to be overexploited or in danger of collapse.
40,000 Number of people who lost their jobs virtually overnight when the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed.