Discards are disgusting. No-one with any sense can support the catching, killing, and throwing away of fish. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight – which Greenpeace has supported from the outset - has at long last made the waste of perfectly good fish a national outrage. It is a pointless waste of life, and potential resources. It’s abhorrent whether you eat fish or don’t.
So why the hell is it happening? And how on earth do you stop it?
Discards are what we call ‘bycatch’ when it is fish. Even more specifically it is usually used to describe fish that could be, or are, marketable and edible – but not what is being specifically targeted or demanded.
Obviously there are different sorts of fishing. Put simply discards are a problem in the methods that catch a ‘mixed bag’ of fish rather than selectively targeting a specific species. So, in the North Sea for example, if a trawler wants to catch haddock, then it’s also quite likely they will pull up a net with other species in it too – like cod, monkfish, whiting, small sharks, prawns and pollack.
At present that haul would be brought onboard, and sorted. The fish that were either not wanted or not allowed to be kept are then normally cast back over the side. Because the focus is on the fish that the fishermen do want to keep and get a good market price for, bycatch is left to be dealt with last, then chucked back in. So for the most part, we can assume the trauma of being caught in a net, dragged up from the depths, and left floundering out of water means that it is dead.
There are essentially three main reasons for a fish becoming a discard statistic:
- the fisherman has no quota for it
- there is little or no market or value for the fish
- the fish is too small, or otherwise illegal to land
There are ways to stop discards, none of which can work in isolation. How we do that is a combination of legislation, and the practical implementation of better ways of fishing, coupled with building in some ‘insurance’ into the system, and being a bit more realistic and flexible as consumers.
Change the rules
There is an assumption that ‘quotas cause discards’. But in reality quotas are agreed at European level (and our elected representatives are part of that) then it is up to individual member states, like the UK as to how they distribute and enforce their share of quotas appropriately. The upshot of that is that fishermen are told they cannot land over-quota fish, when actually the point of the quotas is that they are not supposed to be caught and killed (over-quota) in the first place. Changing the rules to be more specific and actually generate the desired outcome is something we need from EU fishing regulation reform.
By the way, it’s also worth noting that any EU agreement to ‘ban discards’ will similarly be delegated back to each of us member states to implement.
Fishing in a mixed fishery catches a mix of fish. More selective gear is needed to be able to avoid catching non-targeted catch so that discards are not an issue. There are many projects out there to trial ‘smarter’ fishing gear, and of course one of the key ways that happens is by using things like larger net mesh to catch less undersized, juvenile fish.
But we need more ways of making our fishing selective, and minimising its overall impact. If a fishing method is simply not able to catch its target species without decimating other species (including some with very low quotas because they need chance to recover) then why is it still happening? We need to incentivise good fishing, and disincentivise bad fishing, both politically and as consumers.
Technology for monitoring fishing is coming on in leaps and bounds, but largely it is still difficult to know just what is happening at sea. The current interpretation of the quota system means it is ‘illegal’ to land the discarded fish, which means in truth we only have estimates of what is being caught. We need to change that.
Perhaps that means everything should be landed, so that we know what is being caught, and can take the necessary steps to eliminate discards. Perhaps it means more at-sea, and on-land enforcement (which is the model our Norwegian neighbours use, along with a ban on discarding marketable fish at sea – in Norway it must be landed). This is also essential to stop the heinous practice of ‘high-grading', explained here in the Economist.
A more diverse market
Of course the one sure way to make certain that fish are not discarded is that every fish caught is marketable and sold. That means fishermen getting a fair price for fish, and consumers being more ready to accept different species, and varying seasonal ability. Our dependence on just a few species is a huge part of the problem – but a difficult one to fix.
Celebrity chefs endorsing a new fashionable species, like, say, seabass, can cause a surge of demand and problems all of its own. So when you go to the fish counter you should be choosing what’s local, and what’s in season.
So there are ways to reduce and stop discards, but that is just one part of the story. And even that small part involves genuine concerted change from politicians, industry and consumers.
It’s worth acknowledging here that stopping discards is not the solution to all the problems associated with fishing. Discards are just one symptom of a broken system, and addressing them doesn’t instantly stop overfishing, or destructive fishing. (More on how these issues are inter-related in future posts.)
Most importantly, we also need to make sure we are building in some insurance now for our oceans to allow them to recover, for fish and other species to thrive now and in the future. A sustainable fishing industry can only exist as part of a healthy ocean, and too often we take the endless bounty of our seas for granted.