Politicians and campaigners have claimed victory in the fight to end fish discards after the European Parliament approved reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
A vote in Strasbourg has given final approval to a new policy which has been years in the making and follows a high-profile campaign led by Westcountry-based celebrity chef High Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Fisheries minister and Cornish MP George Eustice said the fight to end the “shameful practice” of perfectly good fish being thrown dead back into the sea had been won.
And South West MEP Julie Girling said wresting control of Westcountry fisheries from the stanglehold of Brussels had been a “proud day”. Meanwhile, industry leaders in the region said the deal was a good compromise, though a long way from an “unworkable” total ban on discards.
However, there are now concerns that boats could be prevented from fishing at all if they land fish above their quota for one species. Tom Pickerell, technical director at the quango Seafish, said the knock-on effect for fishermen and the industry on shore was unknown.
“It will reduce fish discards, but my concern is that we might see parts of the fleet tied up despite having quota to fish for target species,” he said.
Industry leaders in the Westcountry welcomed the final approval of EU reforms billed as the end of the “shameful” practice of discarding fish at sea.
The European Parliament has agreed to reform the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), including changes to discards, which will become law in 2015 for some quota species and a year later for others.
Jim Portus, chief executive of the South West Fish Producers Organisation, said the agreement had come to a practical solution but one which fell short of a total ban.
“People can dress this up as much as they like but it is not a total ban and is targeted to quota fish only,” he added.
“Campaigners for a ban on discards will be claiming victory, but people in the industry see it as more of a common- sense approach – somewhere between an unworkable ban and business as usual.”
Central to the package is change to the practice of dumping dead fish back in the sea, or so-called fish “discards”, within three years, following public outrage.
Fisheries minister George Eustice, the MP for Camborne and Redruth, is to attend the Fisheries Council next week. He said final approval of the “broken” CFP was a “milestone” which would make fishing more sustainable.
The vote in Strasbourg also approved moves to wrest control of fishing stocks away from remote officials and give it to regional fishing bodies – trumpeted as the most significant reform since deeply unpopular quotas were set by diktat in 1983.
A ban on discarding in offshore “pelagic” fisheries (such as mackerel and herring) will take effect on January 1, 2015 with a further ban on discards in other fisheries starting from 1 Jan 2016. However, the law will not apply to a raft of non-quota fish such as lemon sole, dab, red mullet, gurnard and bass.
Under the new rules, extra quotas will be handed to states based on estimates of the fish they have thrown away and fishermen will, in most cases, have to land all their catch. However, where they have caught species for which they have no allowance, they will have to buy or swap to obtain extra quota or risk being forced to tie up their boats.
Dave Cuthbert, co-chairman of the New Under Ten Fishermens Association (NUTFA), said catch quotas would have to be redistributed.
“We need an uplift in quotas and it needs to be done across the board – how this is implemented is really important and if the Government doesn’t do it fairly it will be a disaster for the small-scale fleet,” he said. “The theory behind it is good but the arguments are going to be very difficult and there is a hell of a long way to go with this.”
Sir Graham Watson, a South West Liberal Democrat MEP and member of the cross-party Fish for the Future group said Britain had played a constructive role.
He added: “For too long, decisions were made about fishing policy that ignored scientific advice, with the result that Europe now has to import two thirds of the fish we eat.
“These changes are hugely important, and British ministers and MEPs can claim credit for the role they played in overcoming French and Spanish opposition to bring them about.”
Good progress, but we need to keep pushing for truly sustainable fisheries
Chief executive of the South Western Fish Producers Organisation Jim Portus gives an expert view on the legislation.
The European Parliament has finally completed the legal process of the new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that started when the Fisheries Commission made its proposals in July 2011.
The key thrust is a deal that will end the abhorrent practice of discarding perfectly good, wholesome but dead fish back into the sea.
It will become law on January 1, 2014, but will not take effect for another year. The new CFP also includes decentralised decision-making and a legally binding commitment to fish at sustainable levels. It will change fishing practices throughout Europe for the better.
From January 2015 there will be a ban on discarding in "pelagic" fisheries subject to quotas, such as mackerel and herring. A further ban on discards in other quota fisheries for the "whitefish demersal" species, such as cod, haddock and plaice, starts from January 1, 2016.
The practical implications have yet to be considered fully, but the "total" ban that was sought by some has been held off for very good reasons.
The ban will not apply to non-quota fisheries. These were deemed to have limited markets and any such fish almost would be bound to end in land-fill. It would be far better to leave such fish, even if dead, in the marine environment to feed scavenging fish and seabirds. It will also not apply to fish species that on discarding have a high survival rate. It would be pointless to kill a fish simply to count it on landing as "data", when it would have survived the process of throwing it back.
The ban also will not apply to small quantities (de minimus) of quota species that a fisherman might have caught accidentally without having the necessary quota available. This will be a great help to our beleaguered inshore fishermen who suffer enough from the effects of winds and tides.
Trawlermen in the South West's fishing ports have been working since 2007 with net designers and technologists from the Seafish Industry Authority to re-configure their nets in an effort to eliminate discards by selecting fish at the seabed. This allows maximum chance of survival for immature fish that pass easily through the nets. The resulting catch on deck is mostly of mature fish that makes more money at market and, if it is over-quota then its survival rate should be high enough to still allow discarding rather than unnecessary killing.
These experimental voyages, known as "Project 50%", have won plaudits from the EU's Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki.
Other new laws brought in to reform the CFP will enable regional-seas co-operation to implement measures appropriate to that scale, rather than to be subjected to continued micro-management from Brussels. Regional Advisory Councils established under the CFP of 2002 will provide the administrative vehicle for this novel process.
Finally, the new CFP includes, for the first time, a legally binding commitment to fish at sustainable levels (the maximum sustainable yield, or MSY). Annual fish quotas, whenever possible, will be underpinned by scientific advice, to achieve healthy fish stocks and a prosperous fishing industry.
Banning of discarding is one element of the new Common Fisheries Policy, but it will be successful only in combination with other elements of the reform such as quotas based on scientific assessment, long-term planning and attaining MSY.
Q & A
Are fish discards now outlawed under EU law?
Far from it. Pelagic species cannot be discarded at sea from 2015 and other quota fish, such as cod, haddock, whiting and pollock, a year later, but the rules do not apply to non-quota fish, which can still be dumped. Also, fish which show a ‘high chance of survival’ can still be returned.
Why is it not being implemented immediately?
Ports such as Brixham, Plymouth and Newlyn are simply not prepared to deal with the practicalities of landing and marketing so much more fish.
What happens now if boats catch large amounts of a species for which they have insufficient quota?
Fishermen have to land the fish and obtain extra quota by buying or swapping when they get back to port. Otherwise they may face having their vessel tied up. This is one of the biggest concerns, that boats will be kept in port because they have no quota left for, say, cod when they could be out catching large amounts of haddock.
Will quotas be increased to take this into account?
From 2015 quotas are to be increased, based on estimates of how much fish has been discarded by EU member states as no official records of discards have been kept.
What will be the effect on fishermen?
Nobody really knows as there are still many aspects to be thrashed out. It is thought huge emphasis will now be placed on fishing gear which can target particular species and avoid others for which there may be no remaining quota.
Will extra fish being landed mean more jobs in the industry and cheaper fish for consumers?
There could be deals locally if large numbers of one species appear. The industry is looking into ways to sell the extra catch, maybe processed as animal feed.
WMN opinion: Shame of sickening policy of fish discards over at last
Of all the policies drawn up to try to regulate the fishing industry, the insistence that over-quota fish be dumped over the side – dead – to feed the gulls and the crabs was the least justifiable.
Apart from the almost obscene waste of good food, it was also a largely ineffective tool since it positively encouraged unscrupulous fishermen to break the rules, land the fish and
sell it on the black market, completely destroying any hopes the politicians and administrators had of keeping track of fish stocks.
So the confirmation yesterday that discarding fish will begin to be banned from 2015, when fishermen will be legally obliged to land all the fish they catch, is a breakthrough. The scandal is that it was ever considered a sensible way to proceed and that it is taking so long to scrap the policy. For years the Western Morning News has been reporting the anger and frustration of Westcountry fishermen forced to dump good fish over the side because they had exceeded their quota or had no quota for that particular species.
If ever a rule was dreamt up by someone who did not know the reality of fishing it was this one. It might – just – have seemed logical from the inside of a plush, centrally heated office at the European Commission’s headquarters to imagine that discarding over-quota fish was a good way to regulate the industry. From the heaving deck of a trawler in a force-eight gale, when it is extremely difficult, even with modern fishing methods, to precisely target every species, it proved a nightmare. Pictures of fishermen dumping top-quality fish back into the sea while some people were desperate for good food rightly caused anger all around our coastline.
No-one disputes the need to put limits on how much fish can be caught – but the strict ban on landing over- quota fish was indefensible. The fishermen and those in the industry knew that a long, long time ago. It is such a shame it has taken the politicians so long to catch up.
The new EU Common Fisheries Policy devolves power to make decisions about fishing practices from Brussels to the regions. Crucially it puts the day-to-day management of fisheries back in the hands of the fishermen, who have the long-term interests of fish stocks at heart, particularly here in the South West of England, with its valuable mixed fishery.
Images of fishermen dumping good fish shamed an industry and its leaders. At last that shame is lifting.