Failure to enforce discard ban threatens the future of EU fish stocks, report warns

Despite many fishing quotas being significantly increased to facilitate the implementation of the E.U.’s Landing Obligation (LO), also known as the “discard ban,” there has been no decrease in the volume of fish being discarded and no enforcement of the rules, which in turn is providing a platform for overfishing throughout the region and undermining science-based fisheries management decisions, according to a new report.

Compiled by fisheries scientist and FishFix CEO Lisa Borges, and partly funded by the non-governmental organization Our Fish, “The Unintended Impact Of The European Discard Ban,”​ finds that total allowable catches (TACs) across E.U. fisheries have increased by an average of 36 percent above pre-landing obligation levels annually since 2015, and that this increase climbed even further recently – reaching 50 percent in 2019-2020, including a 60 percent rise for demersal fish species.

Borges said that since discarding has not declined in E.U. fisheries at any significant level, the magnitude of these increases may likely have resulted in a substantial widespread increase in fish mortality being exerted on European stocks, and could lead to an “implosion” of the E.U. TAC system. The problem is that the TAC system is not limiting the fishing effort, she said.

Furthermore, if the situation is not addressed, the analysis offers that potential consequences could include the decline of those fish populations currently believed to be fished at sustainable levels, due to the fishing effort being at much higher, unreported rates. It could also lead to a decline in TACs and fishing opportunities due to declining fish populations, and the collapse of vulnerable fish populations due to ongoing unreported legal and illegal fishing pressure.

Before the LO, discards were undermining the TAC system because fishers were allowed to continue fishing and then discarding the fish that they didn’t have quota for, Borges said.

“What we have at the moment is worse because the TACs are increased so they can catch more fish, but they are not being followed, so you have the same level of discards still happening," Borges said. " It’s a vicious circle that could really damage the management of European fisheries and all of the good work that has been done until now."

In the case of the LO, Borges said several incentives were given to the fishing industry to allow for what was going to be “a very big change in behavior.” These included the deletion of some TACs and quotas so that fishers could continue fishing without limits. There have also been exemptions to the discard ban so that some can continue to discard, as well as some increases in TACs.

However, none of the negative incentives relating to the LO’s introduction have been implemented, she said.

“The sanctions for not following the Landing Obligation were delayed and haven’t been applied. There is no monitoring at sea to see if the fishers discard or not. They are obliged to report exempted discards if they happen, which they are not doing. And, at the very end, minimal discards have been landed. This has led the European Commission to officially recognize that illegal and unrecorded discarding practices are widespread,” Borges said.

The reason that this is so important is that previously – thanks to the management systems and TACs that were in place – overfishing had been declining for several years, and limiting fisheries mortality in the process. But recently, this positive trend has leveled off, Borges said.

“The problem is the increased TACs are not limiting exploitation. Overfishing can increase again and take us back to where we were before, which is not very good,” Borges said. “We gave all the positive incentives; It is time to give negative incentives. It’s time to implement the Landing Obligation and to do that you need at-sea monitoring and control. Enforcement will come through that.”

To ensure that the LO delivers on its objective, and to avoid the aforementioned implosion of the fisheries management system, Our Fish is urging the following actions to be taken:

  • Mandate the use of remote electronic monitoring on all fishing vessels above 12 meters in length, and on a percentage of vessels under 12 meters that are assessed as high-risk of non-compliance with the rules;
  • Set TACs at the level advised by scientists for wanted catch only
  • The introduction of environmental and climate impact assessments of fishing activities;
  • The European Commission to establish a set of criteria to be used by member state governments to redistribute quotas to the fishing fleets that have the greatest environmental and social benefits.

The LO formed part of the 2013 reform of the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and sought to end discards and to reduce catches of young fish and unwanted species, which were estimated at the time to be 1.7 million metric tons (MT) per year​. Gradually introduced from 2015 through 2019 for TAC-regulated species in the Atlantic and for those in the Mediterranean with a minimum size, the LO requires all caught fish to be documented, counted against quotas, and landed, in order to provide a market incentive for avoiding the unwanted catch in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock


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