Fish discards are indefensible, but will the EU ban them?

Posted by Willie — 2 March 2011 at 6:23pm - Comments

If yesterday’s news is supposed to be today’s fish and chip wrappers, then today we have an odd scenario: your fish supper is probably wrapped in a hefty helping of column inches on fishing. For yesterday was a busy day for fishy news, in particular the issue of discards. Discards, as we explained very recently, are the unwanted fish caught, killed and thrown back over the side of fishing boats.

This is not a new issue of course, but there was an unprecedented event in Brussels yesterday that made sure that fish discards were high on the media agenda: namely, an EU-wide discussion to consider a ban on discarding fish.

Campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the force behind the Fish Fight campaign, did a fantastic job explaining the issue on the BBC, Channel 4, and in the Guardian (although the latter clearly didn’t know about his new haircut...).

The EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, has started a much-needed discussion about possible ways to implement ban on catching and throwing away fish. Whilst no decisions have yet been made, there were a few options on the table (in this document, which you’re not supposed to have seen, oops!). As I mentioned in my previous blog, banning discards is not the solution to the many problems in Europe’s shared seas, but it is a vital first step.

Now there have been grumblings about discards over many years, including talk about instigating a ‘ban’ similar to the Norwegian system, whereby all dead commercial fish species must be landed. There have also been many attempts to address the issue of discards with ‘better’ fishing methods, and other laudable initiatives, like the Scottish fleet’s catch quota scheme.

But the issue of discards has become something that a growing number of people - including Damanki, UK fisheries minister Richard Benyon, Fearnley-Whittingstall and yours truly- agree needs urgent action. And that’s understandable. Everyone abhors discards, they make no sense, and are the most obviously insane product of a system of European fisheries legislation that is fundamentally flawed.

So, it is only right that this key issue is at the heart of discussions on what reform those regulations need.

There are some who think a discard ban is too heavy-handed. I don’t agree, I think it’s vital. Our starting point needs to be: discards are wrong. Only by doing that will we get round to fixing the problem. If all the fish caught is brought back to land we will immediately have better scientific information on the make-up of catches. We will accurately be able to see where the biggest problems are, and then can take steps to eliminate them.

Lest we forget, the point is to stop the ‘unwanted’ fish being caught in the first place, and to do that we will need to find ways of fishing better, set areas off-limits that are not fished, and also have a more realistic attitude as consumers when it comes to buying fish.

This is just the first step, but it’s a hugely important one. We must all keep applauding those who are trying to stop this ridiculous waste of life and resources, but let’s also remember that there is still a lot more we need to do to ensure we have a sustainable thriving fishing industry, in thriving European seas. The EU fisheries legislation is up for reform in 2012, and of course Greenpeace and many others are campaigning to make sure that reform is the sort our oceans so desperately need.

Hello Willy, Good piece, We met about two years ago at my boat yard if you remember when I was part of NUTFA.
One point that seems to have been overlooked in this debate is, the reason why Fishermen have to dump huge amounts of marketable fish they catch, which according to the Scientists are at very low levels and aren’t there, this can only be due to the Science being wrong, as all Fishermen have always argued. When a marine Biologist who knows nothing about catching fish, charters a boat not suitable for conducting a survey, goes to an area which has always been baron of fish, puts unsuitable nets in the water and surprisingly catches no fish, this could never be considered as a credible survey and does not mean fish stocks are low, unfortunately all of the fisheries surveys are conducted exactly this way and the Politicians seem to take this information as if it had some form of credibility and completely ignore the only professional peoples opinions in the industry, the Fishermen.
The fact is the current quota system could remain as it is, but only if the quotas where set at levels to match the high levels of fish on the grounds, as all undisputable factual evidence clearly indicates and all Cod stocks are not in any danger as I keep hearing, but healthier that at any time in living memory, so if all the quotas where doubled as a reasonable starting point to come some where close to reality, the discarding would stop over night.
The biggest worry is whichever way the CFP goes to stop the discards, if the current science is used in any way it will be a disaster.

Andrew Craig.

Hey Andrew - hope you are doing well.

I agree the science ain't perfect - and a discard ban would start to make that science much better straight away. When we don't have all the info however, we should be being more cautious and that is not what happens at the moment. I think we can all agree that if our taxes are used by politicians to pay for the scientific recommendations - we should at least be paying for something worthwhile and that we listen to!

what of course you also fail to mention (through modesty I assume) is that the current set up unfairly affects small-scale fishermen like those NUTFA < > represents, because of the way quota is shared out.

the smaller scale boats employ more people, catch better quality fish, contribute directly to the local economy, and of course have a very clearly vested interest in looking after their own 'back yard', yet they get a tiny amount of quota. That means that any further squeeze on them makes their existence unviable and discards more likely (under the current system).

In all the bleating we get about 'bloody EU' this, that, and the other, one thing our domestic politicians could, and should, do is redress that balance and support 'the little guys' more.

in the current economic climate, it seems like a no-brainer that they do that.



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Hello Willie,

Not to bad here, I note and fully agree with your comments on how the UK quota is unfairly divided amongst the fleet and my business which I founded and built up from nothing (Gemini Workboats) went bust as a direct result of this, as the inshore fleets quotas are now set so low the Fishermen cant earn a living any more, as they have to dump most of the marketable fish they catch or get prosecuted.
The report commissioned by Ocean2012 by Tom Appleby on the distribution of UK quota, sure high lights the years of unlawful actions by DEFRA regarding this, although I hear it has also prompted major changes coming to the current system, so here’s hoping.

As far as the Science is concerned, what ever system we end up with, all previous Science which has always been based on predictions and guesstermates must be stopped and scrapped, may be best to start with a clean sheet, but this could only be done with a combination of banning discards and removing the quota system for all mixed fisheries and replacing them with days at sea, say for one year which is long enough to assess the stocks, at least then the science would be based on landings and factual evidence, not complete fiction as we have now.

I accept we should always be cautious, but please remember the UK fleet is now so small over fishing is an impossibility, in 1978 I crewed on a Herring drifter working out of Lowestoft, at that time there was over 100 boats from 150' to small inshore converted lifeboats working from that port, there are now 6 inshore boats in total working from Lowestoft, that’s a reduction of 96% and every port in the UK has experienced the same reduction in fleet size, admittedly there has been some technical creep during this time, but this is only small compared to the massive fleet reduction we have experienced.

Andrew Craig.

Andrew, do you have an internet link to Tom's report that you could share on here?

if not, i'll just ask him for a copy!



Hello Willie,
Try this, if not go to the FF home page, scroll down to the bottom and find the Ocean2012 logo, hit that and its the second article down.


Whilst totally agreeing with the stopping of wasting fish, I am concerned that ill conceived legislation will result in a no change situation.
As the catches become easier and more fruitful the price will fall so the low priced fish will be 'lost' from the catch before the holds are full and brought ashore.

Hello R,
Firstly catches are fruitful now, which is why the boats are forced to dump so much fish.
I would suggest fish prices would stay much the same if landings increased, as at present the fish merchants are importing a high percentage of there fish to make up for the short fall from our own boats, so as landing increase at home the merchants will import less as they will always prefer to buy fresher fish from there local markets.
The best thing of all about days at sea compared to quotas is that if a boat is limited to a number of day fishing they will want to keep everything they catch when they are at sea, this in turn means the catches can be recorded properly for the first time ever and stocks can be assessed using factual evidence.
I hope this will alleviate some of your concerns.


It has been reported in this weeks Fishing news that a Scottish boat had a single haul of 1000 boxes of Cod, they where fishing for Whiting and Haddock at the time, that’s about 44 tons of fish and a years Cod Quota for 2 boats, they managed to keep 100 boxes but had to dump the rest, the Skipper is reporting as saying that he has been fishing those grounds for thirty years and never seen so much Cod there.

The Scientists say the Cod stocks in this area are very poor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Its been reported in the Fishing news 18 February, NE England skipper of 10 metre inshore Trawler, reports being forced to dump a total of 163 Tons of over quota Whiting in the last two years or face prosecution, while fishing for Prawns ( nephrops ) . Prawn trawls are well known for being what is described as very low lift nets, this makes them very unsuitable for catching Whiting where high lift nets are used if targeted, this is due to the overwhelming quantities of Whiting in these waters according to all factual evidence available, the reason this Skippers quota is so low is because the Scientists say Whiting stocks in this area are very poor !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

All large marketable fish discarded by the European fishing fleet is due to very poor Science, which is used to set the Quotas.

We are thinking of doing a piece about this issue for BBC news report day. We are based in Newton Abbot in Devon. Would you know anyone near here who may wish to do an interview about this issue next thursday daytime between 9.30am and 2.30pm that would be great.


chris maguire
please e-mail me or phone 01626 201 800 x264

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

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