As mentioned in the last Ask Deep Blue, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy touches on many elements. This week we would like to concentrate on ‘discards’, a topic receiving much publicity in the run-up to Reform finialisation. The practice of throwing dead or weakened fish back into the sea has become a very controversial subject – especially in the UK – with celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hosting a television programme/multimedia campaign expressing his outrage at the practice. But ‘discards’ are nothing new. They have existed pretty much since man began fishing.
The true term for the capture of non-targeted species, and one that gets more to the heart of the issue, is ‘bycatch’ – as these discarded fish must have been caught in the first place in order to be subsequently thrown back. In clarification of the term ‘bycatch’, certain fishing methods are more prone to the unintended capture of non-targeted species. Purse seining, the encircling of a tightly grouped single species school, allows fishers to precisely target the species and thus keeps bycatch to a minimum. Trawling (pulling a submerged net) is much less selective. This is not to say that trawlers blindly stumble about hoping to catch the particular fish they are after; historic knowledge and modern sonar devices help a great deal in aiding a trawler’s selectivity. Schooling patterns give fishers a pretty good idea of when bycatch will be light or heavy. Gear can be adjusted to lessen impact. New technologies, including things like GPS and towed cctv cameras can assist the skipper in minimising collateral capture.
Fearnley-Whittingstall makes the point that fishers dislike bycatch (he chooses to use ‘discards’) and this is ultimately true. Bycatch is in most instances problematic for the fisher in that sorting and disposal become troublesome. A ‘clean’ catch allows for quicker, more exacting processing and storage. Time is of the essence in getting fish out of the net and into the hold as quality begins to decline immediately upon boating. Labour costs increase as more deckhands are required in this sorting, or ‘culling’, process.
It seems like everyone is in agreement that bycatch is not only ethically questionable, but pragmatically and commercially troublesome. So what exactly is the problem?
The real issue in the UK is cod (and a couple of other high-value species). Bycatch of low-value species is termed ‘trash fish’ and the unwanted species are shoveled over without as much concern. But when the bycatch is composed of the highly sought after (and valuable) cod, interest is piqued. Cod are particularly important in the UK as they make up the standard Friday night ‘fish supper’ of fish and chips.
And here we find ‘the rub’ – cod are struggling. The EU has instituted a programme to help cod recover, with quotas set on the amount of cod allowed for capture. Our ‘discard’ problem arises when 1.) the quotas have been reached and cod are subsequently captured by fishers targeting other species, or 2.) cod are captured by fishers not authorised a cod quota. In either case the fishers are ‘forced’ to return the fish to the sea, either dead or weakened. Some fishers and Fearnley-Whittingstall blame faulty regulation, or just ‘Brussels’ in general.
Aside from finger pointing, what can be done? To be blunt, first and foremost bycatch should be reduced. And not just for cod. If we reduce the number of untargeted species being netted along with targeted species then ‘discards’ will be reduced. And it can be done. Improvements have been made in the above-mentioned technological areas and in applying pragmatic practices based on fisher knowledge. Historic data can be used to establish better management. Cod quotas should remain in place as collapse is a real possibility, and by no means should these untargeted cod be allowed as acceptable additions above and beyond the existing cod quotas. ‘We’ve already caught them, might as well keep them’ is no solution.
FAO fisheries have included quite a bit of verbiage on discards in its Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, including:
“States should require that fishing gear, methods and practices, to the extent practicable, are sufficiently selective so as to minimize waste, discards, catch of non-target species, both fish and non-fish species, and impacts on associated or dependent species and that the intent of related regulations is not circumvented by technical device.”