EU ministers agree to ban fishing ships from throwing away their excess catch

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EU ministers have agreed to ban fishing ships from throwing away their excess catch, a controversial practice that has seen millions of tonnes of edible fish thrown away since the introduction of strict EU fishing quotas forty years ago.

The decision, hailed as a “breakthrough” by UK ministers, follows an 18-month campaign for comprehensive reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that was spearheaded by this newspaper.

The agreement followed 24 hours of negotiations at a crucial EU Council meeting of fisheries ministers in Luxembourg.

Two years ago The Independent reported that North Sea fisherman were throwing away up to half of all the fish they caught because of EU laws that ban fisherman from returning to port with more fish than are allowed by strict quotas. An estimated 1.3 million tonnes of fish from the North East Atlantic are thrown away every year.

Fisheries ministers agreed to ban discards of mackerel and herring before 2014. However a ban on throwing away excess cod, haddock, plaice and sole may not come into effect until 2018 because the species swim together, making harder to introduce new practices to avoid by-catch.

The agreement must pass through the EU Parliament and Commission before it becomes law and some green groups said the plans did not go far enough.

However, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has the led the “Fish Fight” campaign for sustainable European fisheries, said that the decision was a “major breakthrough”.

“It’s really important that this ban is going down on paper,” he told The Independent. “We’d rather the dates were sooner and firmer, but we know that ministers are fighting to make this happen. This is not the finishing post but a major hurdle has been cleared. A discard ban is not the be all and end all but it does mean the removal of a completely unacceptable wastage of perfectly edible fish.”

Willie Mackenzie, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace said that the agreement did not satisfactorily address other issues such as the maximum sustainable yield fishing fleets could catch.

"There is a real risk that fish and fisherman are facing another 10 years of overfishing and stock decline, with real consequences for species like cod, hake and tuna," he said.

The fisheries minister Richard Benyon, who once failed to identify nine out of 12 common fish species when challenged by Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, attended the talks on behalf of the UK with agriculture minister Jim Paice.

“I came to Luxembourg to achieve fundamental reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, to achieve healthy fish stocks, a prosperous fishing industry and a healthy marine environment,” Mr Benyon said. “While I am disappointed that the Council has not agreed the firm dates that I was seeking, a commitment to eliminating discards is a step in the right direction.”

The agreement also contained commitments to devolve more responsibility on fishing policy to EU regions. Member states will also be legally obliged to follow scientific advice when setting fishing quotas under the new agreement.

The Luxembourg accords come after intense public pressure from fishing communities, chefs and general public. More than 800,000 people signed the Fish Fight petition in support of more sustainable fisheries. 80 chefs including Jamie Oliver, Raymond Blanc and Mitch Tonks have called for reform as part of the separate Fish2Fork campaign.