At last, headway on EU discards ban

Published on
June 12, 2012

European fisheries ministers have at last bowed to public pressure and agreed to implement a series of bans that will effectively outlaw the controversial practice of discarding unwanted fish at sea.

Provisional dates agreed by ministers at a tense European Council meeting in Luxembourg would see a ban on discards of mackerel and herring in place for 1 January 2014, while a phased ban on the discarding of cod, haddock, plaice and sole would be fully operational by 1 January 2018. However, these dates are now subject to negotiations within the European Parliament. 

The marathon 18-hour negotiation session, which started on Tuesday and ran into the early hours of Wednesday, was a long-awaited opportunity for EU fisheries ministers to debate the discard issue and whether a ban should be introduced, and, if so, when? They also looked at how to set maximum sustainable yields (MSY), by which fisheries would be managed in accordance with scientific advice over how much fishing they can uphold, as well as ways of enabling greater regional management of fisheries and effectively ending Brussels’ micro-management. 

The proposed discard ban implementation dates have failed to appease many interested parties and certainly a number of marine conservation groups have said the time scales, particularly for whitefish, are too long-term and therefore don’t give the necessary protection to certain at-risk stocks. 

Meanwhile, campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall told the BBC that he was concerned that while the pelagic ban got the go-ahead with “a big political fanfare,” there would be a delay in the ban on discarding whitefish.

UK Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon also said he was disappointed the council didn’t agree to the dates he wanted for whitefish, but said a commitment to eliminating discards was a step in the right direction. The UK government, amongst others, had been pushing for a whitefish discard ban implementation date of 1 January 2016.

But Benyon gave some indication of the political resistance to fisheries reform in the EU, warning ahead of the meeting that there were countries involved in the negotiations that “wanted to wreck the whole reform process” and that on the subject of a discards ban there were those that wanted to push it well beyond 2020. 

“For pelagic stocks we can have a ban in place by 2014. On whitefish stocks it’s slightly more complicated but we are certainly amongst the countries that are pushing fastest and hardest for an end to discards,” said Benyon.

“We know that working with the industry is effective and is a way of resolving this problem but ultimately it requires a clear, bold statement as part of the reform of this broken Common Fisheries Policy (CFP),” he continued. “We want to see an end to discards, an end to top down centralized control of the fishing industry, and [the industry] brought into consideration with the wider marine environment.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall stressed that while it’s vital the EU introduces a discards ban, it’s critical that Europe’s fishermen are incentivized to take a more sustainable approach. 

“We’re talking about half a million tons of fish being thrown overboard and that includes prime cod that’s being thrown overboard because it’s over quota, or because fishermen are throwing away smaller fish to maximize the value of their catch. While that practice of ‘high-grading’ is technically illegal in the North Sea, it’s happening every single day,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall.

“Part and parcel with a discards ban is we need to motivate fishermen to use more selective gear,” he added. “It’s not a solution on its own and we need to reward more sustainable fishing methods altogether. That means targeting the better fish more successfully and reducing by-catch.

“It’s true there have been some successful trials but the methods that have been proved successful have not been adopted by the industry. They tend to be small showcase trials whereby the gear tends to be put to one side and the fishermen go back to their old ways. That has to stop.”

Meanwhile, EU fisheries chief Maria Damanaki, the architect of the CFP reform proposals and the program to ban discarding, has conceded the outcome of the discard negotiations was a compromise, but was still a “workable” step in the right direction. She will nevertheless be wary that the proposed bans are pushed yet further into the future and that the strong political resistance doesn’t weaken her other recommendations for wholesale change.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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