EC, Damanaki change tune on discards

There has been something of a U-turn in the last five months over how Europe will bring about an end to the controversial practice of discarding fish at sea for which there is either no quota or no market. 

At the start of this year, EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki warned it was inevitable that reforms to the much-maligned Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and in particular the banning of discarding catches at sea, would initially be hard on fishermen. But she offered solace, saying there would be less bureaucracy and less decision-making conducted in Brussels. There would instead, she said, be greater regionalized policy making.

However, on the eve of the European Seafood Exposition, Damanaki told delegates at a top-level stakeholder hearing on discards that the calendar to end the practice with specific end-dates per fishery must be decided top-down. “There is no other way about it,” she said.

With regards to her change of tack, Damanaki said she understood why many stakeholders feel the commission is showing a knee-jerk reaction to media hype when it said it needed to tackle the discard problem once and for all. But she remarked how impressed she had been by the scale of public opposition to discards across the EU, citing the 500,000 people that had signed the “Fish Fight”  anti-discard petition delivered to the commissioner by UK campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. (There are now close to 675,000 signatories.) 

“I can almost hear you thinking, ‘Here they go again.’ First they preach that they want to stop the top-down approach of rules being pushed onto the fishing industry and that they want a bottom-up approach with initiatives coming from the industry themselves. But when it comes to discards the commission preaches water, but it drinks wine,” said Damanaki.

“I can understand that some among you prefer to continue the initiatives that we have seen emerge in the EU fishing industry to decrease discards. I can understand that many here prefer to continue with a slower pace and without being in the spotlight,” she continued. “But there is also something you have to understand and that is that times have changed. We don’t have time. Our stocks are in difficult position. The great majority of our fishermen, especially the coastal fishermen are complaining that there is no fish in the sea.”

The commissioner acknowledged that 47 projects were already in operation across Europe — all aimed at reducing discards and they had made progress. But she said these initiatives were scattered, localized interventions. 

“There is no generalization, no level playing field, and no proper framework across EU waters. And therefore despite the good intentions, our gradual and ‘voluntary’ approach has not given the results we had hoped for.”

She said the discard decision was a political responsibility and therefore “has to be taken” by the European institutions — the commission, the council and Parliament. After that, the fishing industry could design the specific measures for better selectivity in a bottom-up approach.

Damanaki said legislators must establish a new legal framework that removes all compulsory discarding, along with clear objectives and time limits. She also said the fishing industry should devise ways in which the fish it doesn’t want is simply not caught in the first place. Or if it is caught, then storage mechanisms are put in place to enable them to wait for better prices.

The question left hanging is: What changed things? Essentially, it seems the “media hype” did the trick. Damanaki told the discard hearing that the whole seafood industry is now faced with a strong consumer opinion. These consumers are very well informed and want to know they are not supporting wasteful practices when they buy fish, she said. 

“We need to acknowledge that many of these consumers think that we are moving too slow. Why do we need to acknowledge that? Because they are the ones who buy your products, because they are the market force and we cannot ignore them,” she said. “Therefore, what we have to do is to give fish back its good name. This is important for the fishing industry and it is important for coastal communities. But it is also important for consumers.”

Since that meeting and through an official draft of the proposals reforming the CFP — obtained and published by BBC News last week, two months ahead of the official publication date — it was learned the commission envisages phasing in a complete discard ban by switching to quota systems based on how many fish are landed in port rather than how many are caught. This implies vessels will have to record and land all catches.

This, revealed the draft, would apply to species including mackerel, herring and tunas from the start of 2014. Cod, hake and sole would follow a year later, with virtually every other commercial species coming under the regulation from 2016.

Discards aside, from the EU fishing industry’s perspective the most dramatic reform in the draft proposal would be the mandatory adoption of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) for all vessels of 12 meters or more, and for all boats under 12 meters fishing with towed gear.

BBC News’ published excerpts from the draft state that skippers would be guaranteed shares of national quotas for periods of at least 15 years, which they could trade among themselves — even, if national government agrees, trading with fleets from other countries. This is already practiced on a smaller scale in a number of EU member states, but has been taken much further in countries like New Zealand and Iceland.

It should be noted the draft proposals need to be approved by the EU College of Commissioners before they can be formally adopted by the commission and officially published on 13 July.


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