Discards, it’s a small word but it’s a big problem: the catching, killing and throwing away of perfectly good fish. It’s tossed over the side because it is too small, not profitable, or the wrong species. It’s an environmental crime, with estimates that as much as every second cod or haddock caught in the North Sea is chucked away, and with some fishing practices throwing away as much as 80 per cent of what is caught in their nets. At a time of economic austerity, such wanton waste is intolerable. With the majority of Europe’s fisheries currently classed as overfished, it’s also clearly not a good use of precious resources, or a sensible long-term strategy.
The public agree. Thanks largely to the campaigning efforts of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s FishFight, dumping fish is an issue that has hit the headlines, become a real popular concern and turned into one of the central themes of the long, tortuous process of reforming Europe’s fishing laws. The public think chucking away good fish is wrong and should stop, and accordingly Europe’s Parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly in support of banning discards earlier this month.
So it’s good news then that in the early hours of yesterday morning our Fisheries Ministers followed suit, after an all-night session, by agreeing to back a Europe-wide discard ban. But their agreement needs to be understood in context.
What ministers agreed was a phased-in ban to end discards. The idea is that this is brought about in stages, Pelagic fisheries first (that’s things like mackerel & herring), North Sea fisheries next, and Mediterranean fisheries last. It would start from next year, but still allow a small percentage of ‘unwanted’ fish to be caught and thrown back. Ministers agreed that up to 9% of unwanted fish could be caught and landed.
That’s a compromise, and one that in reality equates to quite a few hundred tonnes of fish. Backers of a ban, like UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon, claim compromise was necessary to avoid countries like Spain, France and Portugal looking to create other loopholes and exemptions.
But that’s nowhere near the end of it. To get agreement on the discard ban (and other essential elements of reform) between 27 EU Member States we now have to endure a few months of complex negotiations. The European Parliament, European Commission, conservation and Environmental groups, and countries like the UK will be pushing for a tighter ban. At the same time vested interests will be trying wherever possible to water it down.
That’s why it’s so important that this is so clearly an issue of public expectation. Parliamentarians and Ministers ultimately represent you, the voter and consumer. They will be under pressure to delay, dilute and derogate as they are lobbied by industrial fishing interests. They need us to remind them to stand firm and deliver an end to discards. It’s what we expect, and it’s what our oceans need.
We are already seeing great initiatives to reduce bycatch of unwanted fish, and make fishing more selective. Those are measures we all need to support. We have to start rewarding and supporting those who fish better, and bring most benefit to coastal communities.
A discard ban could be viewed as a blunt tool, but ultimately it’s about us changing what happens at sea. It’s not simply about stopping chucking away perfectly good fish; it’s about not catching what we shouldn’t in the first place.