"Lackluster" enforcement enabling UK fishers to flout discard rules

Published on
February 8, 2019

Even though the United Kingdom led lobbying for the introduction of the European Union-wide ban on the practice of discarding unwanted fish at sea, the country has so far failed to implement or enforce the resultant Landing Obligation, finds a new report published by the House of Lords E.U. Energy and Environment Sub-Committee.

The Landing Obligation was designed to put an end to an estimated 1.7 million metric tons (MT) of fish annually being thrown back into the sea because it either had little or no value for fishers, or they had no quota for it. Spurred on by a public petition championed by campaigning celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that had around 870,000 signatures, the E.U. agreed to legislation in 2013 that would require fishers to land everything they caught. The rules have been slowly phased in since 2015, and came fully into force on 1 January this year.

Yet despite this long lead-in time, when the E.U. sub-committee examined the issue at the end of last year, it heard no evidence of U.K. fishers complying with the Landing Obligation, and was informed that the country was far from ready for full implementation. The committee’s subsequent report, “Fisheries: implementation and enforcement of the E.U. landing obligation,” states that with little attempt being made to enforce the regulation’s requirements, the discarding of fish was being allowed to continue.

Lord Krebs, a member of the sub-committee, told SeafoodSource that witnesses in its inquiry were universally of the opinion that the Landing Obligation had been ignored from the first implementation phase because of the fishing industry’s lack of awareness surrounding the new regulation, as well as a lack of enforcement by the responsible authorities.

“There is also the broader issue of culture change, and various representatives of the fishing industry told us that this regulation was a huge upheaval for fishermen who for decades have had the habit of chucking unwanted fish over the side,” he said. “Now they suddenly have to keep it on their boats, stored separately and bring it all back to port.”

While the primary intentions of the Landing Obligation – to help make fishing more sustainable and to also give better information to the scientists on what it is that is being taken out of the water – were well-received by all parties, Krebs believes that the lack of its enforcement hasn’t provided the necessary encouragement that fishermen need to change their behavior. 

Therefore, all parties are to blame for the fishing industry’s failure to comply with the regulation, he said.

“I think everybody – the government, the enforcement body and industry – have all been lackluster in their performance," he said.

But with the new rules agreed to in 2013, Krebs said that actions could have been taken years ago to change how fishing quota is managed and distributed, as well as to improve the take-up of technology to help fishers be more selective in what they catch, and to reach agreement with other E.U. member states about the use of cameras to monitor compliance. 

Instead, the most likely scenario in 2019 is that discarding will continue, he said.

According to the report, ensuring compliance with the new rules requires the ability to monitor fishers at sea – to observe if any discarding occurs. Without effective monitoring, it stresses that there is no way of determining if discards are still occurring and consequently whether the catch limits that are being set to prevent overfishing are being adhered to.

The report adds that this could be a particular problem now that quotas have been increased based on the assumption that no discarding will take place. If fishers continue to discard and simultaneously land their increased quota, they will be catching larger volumes than they were before the Landing Obligation’s introduction. This could potentially lead to overfishing and damage to fish stocks.

While Krebs acknowledged that authorities don’t have the resources to monitor every fishing boat out at sea, the inquiry’s witnesses agreed that the most effective way to ensure compliance would be to install remote electronic monitoring (REM) devices onboard vessels, as it would give the enforcement body the most complete picture of what each vessel is up to.

However, he said that very few boats in the United Kingdom currently have such tools installed and that there hasn’t been a drive to extend installation further across the fleet.

The U.K. government will not mandate it unless other E.U. countries do the same, and the reason for this hesitancy is that it’s perceived that such a move could put U.K. fishers at a disadvantage. But with the likelihood that the U.K. government will retain the principle of the Landing Obligation when the country leaves the E.U., alongside the devolved administrations, it may have the opportunity to require REM on all vessels (U.K. and non-U.K.) fishing in U.K. waters.

This will remove any potential disadvantage, the report suggests. But Krebs added that implementing such a requirement would inevitably take time.

“I think that even when we have left [the E.U.] and ‘have taken back control,’ we are still going to have to negotiate international agreements on the fishing in our waters, and this is one example of that,” he said. “If we are going to install REM in our boats, we would have to agree that other boats fishing in our waters would also have it on theirs. I think there is a lot of work to be done there and this would be one part of a lot of negotiations.”

While REM was offered up as the best solution for enforcement, Krebs said there were also three solutions frequently mentioned in the inquiry that could help fishermen align better with the Landing Obligation, namely: more selective fishing gear, real-time information delivered to fishermen about where particular fish stocks are, and a platform for quota trading.

He explained that while quota trading already exists to some degree with the larger fishing vessels because they tend to belong to producer organizations, it’s currently not an option for the under-10-meter boats, which represent around 80 percent of the U.K. catching fleet. 

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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