By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Why, in an age of declining fish stocks and persistent global hunger, do we discard so many edible fish we pull from the sea?
The short answer, as the Guardian reported yesterday in Ban on discarding edible fish caught at sea has failed – Lords report:
The wasteful practice of discarding edible fish at sea has been one of the key charges levelled against the EU’s common fisheries policy, which requires fishing vessels to throw back fish if they have already exceeded their quota for certain species.
The practice of discarding, which has resulted in an estimated 1m tonnes of fish a year being thrown back into the water, dead or in too poor a condition to carry on living, has been targeted for reform since 2011, when the EU said it would phase it out over several years in order to conserve fish populations.
But fishermen still have an incentive to carry on with the practice, because it generates more money and allows them to spend longer at sea.
The House of Lords conducted an inquiry into the so-called landing obligation, which came into effect at the beginning of this year, and was supposed to address this problem at least with respect to fishing in EU waters – but has not done so. As the Guardian notes:
The ban on the wasteful discards of healthy and edible fish at sea has failed, according to a Lords report. Despite its enormous popularity with the British public, the measure has been poorly implemented in the UK and the result is more fish being needlessly wasted.
This from the summary of the full report,The EU fisheries landing obligation: six months on, published today:
The landing obligation was agreed by EU Member States in 2013 with the aim of eliminating the practice of discarding fish at sea. This was widely considered to be a substantial change for the fishing industry. When we conducted an inquiry in late 2018, on the eve of the new rules coming fully into force, we heard significant concerns about the impact it could have on the UK’s fishing industry, port infrastructure and supply chains.
We were, therefore, concerned to find that the full implementation of the landing obligation appears to have had little effect during its first six months, with only small quantities of fish that would previously have been discarded being landed and little evidence of fishers being ‘choked’ by a lack of quota. While we heard some evidence that this was due to changes in fishing practices, many witnesses also expressed scepticism that the rules are being complied with. Despite the six-year lead-in, the UK Government and devolved administrations still do not have mechanisms in place to monitor compliance: coupled with a lack of historic data on catches this means there is no way of knowing the extent to which illegal discarding is taking place.
Continued discarding of fish could cause serious damage to fish stocks; the current UK Fisheries Minister has described discarding as “environmental vandalism”. And yet a significant number of exemptions to the landing obligation have been agreed, including for some of the species with the highest rates of discards. The EU has made significant progress in recent years in improving the health of the marine environment. Now fisheries ministers across the EU must ensure that the challenges the landing obligation poses for fishers and enforcement agencies do not result in a return to the ‘bad old days’ of short- term economic benefits overriding the long-term sustainability of fish stocks and the fishing industry.
Not Just an EU Problem
I note that the problem of “bycatch” – discarded fish – isn’t limited to the EU. According to a December 2018 piece in The Conversation, There aren’t plenty of fish in the sea, so let’s eat all that we catch, it also afflicts Australia:
Discarded fish accounts for 8% of the total global catch by volume. In Australia our reluctance to eat many types of fish makes the bycatch problem even worse.
As part of a CSIRO research team, we spent 12 months examining causes (and possible solutions) to the bycatch problem. This involved an economic analysis of fish caught and discarded by fishing trawlers operating in the Great Australian Bight Trawl Sector.
This region of the Southern Ocean is fished mostly for deepwater flathead and bight redfish. There are, in fact, 120 different species that can be caught, but only 60 of these are eaten. The means up to 56% of any catch is discarded (Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis).
Using information trawlers fishing in Australian waters are required to collect, the two Australian researchers, Aysha Fleming and Ingrid van Putten, calculated that “had the discarded fish been able to be sold, total annual fishing returns would have been increased by 18%, from A$1.97 million to A$2.32 million per vessel.”
In the Australian case, the researchers blame the wastage on consumer tastes:
In Australia, most people tend to dislike “fishy” flavours like sardines and cook fish in a way – flinging it on the bbq – that may not work for more delicate, unusual species like clams. We prefer boneless fish that flakes but isn’t too soft or too oily (for example we love flathead, not eel). We have also gotten used to consuming the same foods at any time of year, with little thought to seasonality.
EU fisheries policy is not germane for Australia.
Source: There aren’t plenty of fish in the sea, so let’s eat all that we catch, The Conversation.
What Is To Be Done?
Back to that House of Lords report. According to this account in The Press and Journal, Fears industry is at risk of having nothing left to fish:
“Government is allowing this now illegal fishing practice to go unchecked,” committee chairman Lord Teverson said yesterday.
He added: “Unless the discard ban is properly implemented and enforced, the UK’s fishing industry could in the future find itself with nothing left to fish.”
Lord Teverson also said it “wholly inappropriate” that incentives were being used to encourage fishers to follow the rules, adding: “It sends the wrong message that abiding by the law is voluntary [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis].
The solution? The Lords report endorses the use of monitoring systems, the cost of which Teverson claims has fallen in recent years, to ensure compliance
In our previous report we explored the use of remote electronic monitoring (REM), which typically combines CCTV cameras to record fishing activity, GPS receivers to track fishing locations and sensors to monitor fishing gear usage, in detail. We concluded that “REM was “the only practical and effective way to monitor compliance with the landing obligation” [report p. 11, citations omitted].
Yet implementation of a comprehensive REM system is yet another issue complicated by Brexit:
Both the Scottish and UK administrations acknowledge the benefits of REM. Marine Scotland told us: “We believe that the proportionate use of Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) would help with future enforcement of the landing obligation.” The Minister agreed: “To actually bring a prosecution you need to be able to see exactly what is happening on board, and REM gives you that particular opportunity.”
Nevertheless, neither administration is prepared to require its fleets to use REM until other Member States place a similar requirement on their fleets. The Fisheries Minister restated this position: “We must not impose it on our UK boats and create an unlevel playing field with other EU vessels that do not have to have the same technology installed.” [report pp. 11-12; citations omitted].
We remain of the view that remote electronic monitoring is the only way to monitor compliance with the landing obligation, and restate our disappointment that Member States did not use the lengthy phasing-in of the landing obligation to agree on its use across the EU.
The Minister told us that “after we have left the European Union … as a condition of fishing in our waters, we would be able to ensure that the same requirements are placed on EU vessels in our waters”, and that these requirements could include the use of REM. He cautioned, however, that this would be subject to negotiations with the EU, and that a desire to control access to UK waters and impose restrictions on EU vessels would need to be tempered with a “need to consider our markets, because the majority of fish caught in our waters is marketed in the EU”.
It may be contentious for the UK to insist on the universal use of remote electronic monitoring as a condition of fishing in its waters post-Brexit. Nevertheless, we believe that the UK should commit to mandating the use of remote electronic monitoring on all vessels fishing in UK waters after it leaves the EU [report p. 12; citations omitted; original emphasis].
As for the Australian situation, after concluding that the discards problem stems from consumption preferences, the two researchers offer weak recommendations:
But these consumption preferences are not immutable. They can change. As one fisher we spoke to said, there was much to be hopeful about reducing the level of discards, due not only to the potential of Asian markets but the increasing consumer interest in sustainable consumption.
Inspiration could come from the “nose to tail” movements that promote using all of the animal. The movement to use local produce could also help. There are restaurants in Scandinavia that specialise in cooking little-known previously discarded local species, cooking “whatever comes in that afternoon” off local fishing boats.