EU landing obligation may choke its seafood sector

Published on
June 15, 2016

Its implementation began almost 18 months ago, but some major doubts continue to surround the practicality of the European Union's landing obligation, or “discard ban,” as it’s commonly known.

Concerns are likely to intensify as 2019 inches closer. That’s when all total allowable catch (TAC) species will be subject to the land-all rule and the full impacts of the regulation will become visible.

The land-all regulation was first introduced for E.U. fishermen targeting pelagic species in January 2015 and then expanded to many demersal species in January this year. The next phase of the rollout – in six month’s time – will include cod stocks, including the rejuvenating North Sea cod, and this is the point when many doubters anticipate the dynamics of the discard ban will face their sternest challenge yet.

There is fear that fishermen who were previously compelled to discard fish with low quotas (namely, cod) will now heavily fined if and when they are forced to keep fish for which they have no quota on-board their vessels.

If a much bigger cod quota isn’t forthcoming, then there could be a big problem, warned Ian Duncan, a member of European Parliament (MEP) and the Fisheries Committee (EU PECH), in his keynote address at the recent Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB) 47th Annual Conference in London.

“The cod stock, which will not be subject to the discard ban until January 2017, is going from strength-to-strength, primarily as a result of the actions of fishermen – real-time closures, better targeting of opportunities, sharing of stock distribution data etc. – together with a grudging rise in quota. There is every likelihood the discard ban will actually undo this good work,” said Duncan.

Duncan’s point is that fishermen have been working hard to rebuild North Sea cod stocks, implementing innovative measures that have paid off. Now though, those measures could be for nothing, as fishermen are simply required to land all fish.

According to the MEP, the regulation owes much to the Fish Fight campaign, which took place from 2010 to 2014 and was led by U.K. celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Prior to the campaign, despite the struggles of the North Sea cod population, fishermen were still discarding up to 2.1 million metric tons (MT) of it per year, because “they were compelled to do so by E.U. law,” Duncan said.

Duncan acknowledged it was “probably one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP),” and “enough to mobilize a nation.”

“From a standing start, 870,000 people joined the charge and a titanic lobbying effort followed,” Duncan said. “In the space of just three years, Fearnley-Whittingstall had secured the passage of the landing obligation. This was an extraordinary feat.”

But the campaign caused a policy shift that has merely served to complicate matters further, Duncan said. When Duncan became a member of the Fisheries Committee in 2014, it faced the challenge of making the discard ban work. That’s “when the fun really began” – and by which time he said the “circus” had moved on, Duncan said.

Describing the regulation as a “simplistic solution in a complex system,” he told conference delegates there are several reasons to discard fish, including size, quality and vessel safety, but the ban was primarily targeted at the discard of marketable products – fish that could be landed if quota was available.

“It quickly became apparent that discards were a serious problem in mixed fisheries, and the problem was acute where quotas were out of kilter with the quantity of fish on the ground," he said. "In truth, the discard ban couldn’t really address this issue since it didn’t actually address the quota issue. What it did do was substitute discarding at sea for discarding ashore. The big difference – despite my best efforts during the negotiation of the law – was that the costs of the shore-side discard would be borne by fishermen,” he said.

Indeed, he reckons the single biggest failing of the new CFP is that it didn’t involve those most affected by legislation in its development.

“Fishermen need to be at the heart of the CFP,” Duncan said.

He added, “The CFP was constructed in a different era and as a means of allocation, not conservation. As a result, it is very difficult to deliver the most modest of reforms.”

Now, functioning within the confines of the discard ban without additional quota is proving a big problem for fishermen, especially those nephrops. And that could prove an ominous signal to cod fishermen facing their own upcoming confrontation with the ban.

SAGB conference delegates heard from Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA). Scotland’s nephrops fishery comprises up to 242 vessels, catching around 19,000 MT of nephrops with a first sale value of GBP 75 million (USD 108. million, EUR 95.8 million) or 15 percent of the total value of all landings by the Scottish fishing industry. The landing obligation incorporated these valuable shellfish in January 2016. Park said the new rules essentially reverse previous fishing rules that made it illegal to land a fish for which a vessel had no quota, and that fishermen haven’t received sufficient quota to solve the problem of choke species.

Choke species are fish that are abundant but have low quotas, which in mixed fisheries are quickly exhausted and thus prevent further fishing for the main target species. In management regimes such as the nephrops fishery, this requires vessels to shut down fishing activities in areas where they can’t guarantee avoiding the species for which they have no quota left. Depending on the timing of a fishery closure and the fisheries concerned, this could have a serious economic impact on parts of the supply chain.

Even after buying in more quotas to cover some of the choke species’ shortfalls, the nephrops sector still finds itself in a precarious position.

Park said the fleet was not sitting still and had been looking at ways to improve its selectivity, such as trialing low flying nets that result in much less small fish by-catch – with some very positive results.

Ultimately, though, having higher quotas to cover the catch is essential, because current circumstances mean the landing obligation is actually increasing the mortality rate, he said.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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