Waste Watch: Why Do We Discard So Many Edible Fish We Pull From the Sea?

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?

The UK

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.

Alrighty then.

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  1. KevinD

    We throw back fish or the same reason misshapen carrots and vegetables don’t make it to market – we demand the best and it better be perfect. Although, a grocer near me has a bin where they throw all the tiny and misshapen carrots – cheaper and tastes the same. Go figure.

    1. Alfred

      It’s true that ‘commodity aesthetics’, by which the choices that consumers make in real marketplaces are manipulated by sellers (hence the whole notion of a ‘mis-shapen carrot whose desirability and therefore price are less than that of a ‘beautiful’ carrot), is a big part of the reason. But, leaving aside the question just raised of fish-sticks, which are all uniformly ‘beautiful’) a clue to the other part of the reason lies in the term ‘commercial fishing’. It’s objective is not to feed people, or to conserve resources, let alone to be nice or to respect treaties. It’s objective is to make money. It would seem that, in order to maximize the monetary returns of fishing, one must pull out of the seas more fish than one can actually sell (indeed more than should be taken if fish populations are to remain healthy), in order to be left each trip out or season with enough ‘attractive’ specimens to fill the marketplace. Allowance of course must then be made for spoilage en route to the dinner table, which means even more fish. On top of all that, we still have Veblen’s hypothesis before us: to the effect that status in our stratified society depends on conspicuous consumption, which is actually a euphemism for conspicuous waste. In that perspective, the waste of fish is not a ‘problem’ at all; it’s an objective.

  2. Amfortas the hippie

    i’m not above eating “bait”.
    that said, a lot of what are called “trash fish” along the Texas coast are called that for a reason: so bony and meatless that it’s not worth the effort, or(due to the specific fish’ diet,etc)having an unpalatable flavor.(i ate a seagull, once, that had this problem…long story)
    However, I doubt this has much to do with the “bycatch” issue.
    it’s more likely to do with filling the hold with what gets the most $, and tossing the rest overboard…just like for time immemorial.
    That is due to what the distributors and other middlemen reckon they can sell, which in turn has to do with what the cooks are cooking, which has a lot to do with the standardisation of food service(see: “supersize me”, etc)
    in a corporate kitchen, inertia is a big thing—“we do it this way, and no other”.
    in a mom and pop cafe, you have a lot more wiggle room(when i had my cafe, I’d drive every couple of months the 350 miles to the docks in Galveston with a bunch of ice chests to get “whatever came off the boat”. I didn’t turn up my nose at bycatch, so long as it was wholesome…at the very least, you can make Gumbo,lol)
    That inertia/standardisation—or that mom and pop wiggle room– informs how folks cook at home…Fads in fish (like with other foods) change all the time.
    so in this case, maybe they’re going at this backwards…i mean long john silvers is already bait, no? must they insist on pollock, or whatever?
    (until she met me,LJS was my landlocked wife’s only experience with seafood) Or Landry’s…surely they have the talent and the $$$ to experiment with “bycatch”…and Cajun and Creole Cuisine would seem to lend itself to this.

    1. polecat

      If they can create ‘vat’ grown meat, why not .. phish ?

      “Now with 6% real fish content !”..

      You all know it’ll eventually come to that, don’t you .. I swear to HeyZeus, society is headed straight into Atwoodian dystopian fictional territory .. minus the fiction ! Just look at the IC and Big Security, as an example… the Corps se Corps are on our doorstep !

    2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      One of the underloved fish mentioned for Australia is barracouta (not to be confused with barracuda). Take it from me, you do not want to put this fish in your mouth.

      1. witters

        More for me then. (Fry high and fast, and turn.) [And check for worms. A dark room, and the worms glow.]

  3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Wonder if we can say the same about overprinting books that are unsold.

    “Those trees die for nothing.”

    It is still not wasting, though, if later on, those books age well and become very useful.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If we were to print all our books on inherently-acid-free hemp paper, as we did several centuries ago, we could sidestep and retire entirely the “those trees died for nothing” problem.

      And if books on hemp paper go unsold? Well ” these hemps died to save those trees from dying for nothing.”

  4. lyman alpha blob

    Interesting data on the skate and ray discard tonnage. Several years ago I worked for a small seafood wholesaler in Maine who provided fish to many five star restaurants in NYC. When I started working there I was surprised to find out that they were selling skate and monkfish to these chi-chi places since I had always thought of them as “garbage” fish. I remember catching skate when fishing for flounder as a kid and we’d never dream of keeping it.

    Now one rather unscrupulous use for skate wings is to use small round cutter to bang out plugs and resell them as scallops for a lot more $$$, but that isn’t what our customers were doing with them. I can’t say I like the taste of bottom feeders myself, but I have seen quite elaborate preparations of both species on high end menus, so there is clearly a market for them. Only so much can go the the upscale restaurants but you’d think they’d make a decent fish chowder at least.

    Of course the main reason the fishermen were selling skate and monkfish to the wholesalers is because the traditional catch of haddock and cod has largely disappeared…

    1. lordkoos

      I didn’t realize that skate and rays are routinely thrown away when caught, what a waste. We love skate wing, we do it with the classic browned butter recipe. I’ve also had skate in Malaysia where it’s marinated in a thick and spicy, flavorful paste before being grilled. Yum.


      The classic recipe, which is quite easy:

      Poached skate wing with browned butter, Serves 4

      4 pieces skate wing, unfilleted (about 2 1/2 pounds in all)

      4 1/2 cups water, or more if needed

      1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

      1 teaspoon dried thyme

      1 3/4 teaspoons salt

      1/4 teaspoon peppercorns 2 bay leaves

      1/4 pound unsalted butter

      1/3 cup capers

      1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

      1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

      Step 1

      Put the skate in a large deep frying pan in one layer. Pour the water and the 1/2 cup vinegar over the fish. Add the thyme, 1 teaspoon of the salt, the peppercorns, bay leaves, and more water if needed to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, at a gentle simmer for 3 minutes. Raise the heat and bring to a rolling boil. Remove from the heat and let sit until the fish is just done, about 5 minutes. Carefully remove the fish and drain on paper towels.

      Step 2

      Meanwhile, in a medium stainless-steel saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. Cook until the butter turns a medium brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the remaining1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar, the capers, the parsley, the remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt, and the ground pepper. Serve the fish topped with the sauce.

  5. Reality Bites

    Maybe they should rebrand some of the fish. After all, Patagonian Toothfish was renamed Chilean Sea Bass and that worked wonders. Lobster was also originally seen as a trashy thing.

    The reports say that people don’t eat these fish because they don’t like the taste. How many have actually tasted them. I never tasted skate until I lived in the U.K. I tried it and it was fine. But this was prepared skate. I wouldn’t have just walked into a market and picked it up and cooked it myself the first time I saw it.

    If governments are interested in decreasing this problem they should look at working to expand consumer tastes. These preferences are not set in stone. They can and often do change over time. Food companies spend significant sums of money to do just that.

  6. Rojo

    Pre-heat oven to 475.

    Salt and pepper one filleted dog fish, wrap in foil with lemon slices, place in oven with a brick on top of it.

    Cook one hour.

    Remove from oven, toss out fish and eat the brick.

    Old fisherman’s joke.

  7. Michael

    Watch “Just Eat It” and see the food system at its worst. Well done and tip of iceberg. Makes you think twice about dumpster divers (eewww!)

    Discards in the fields, discards in the packing house, discards in the store when stocking, unbought and discarded and the topper: we throw away tons of food from our refrig because we don’t cook or feel like #%&*( tonite.

    We’ve become wired to never run out of food because of the societal embarrassment heaped on those who do.

    Also “4 Fish” is a great story. It’s a book.

  8. bassmule

    It would also help if commercial fishermen stopped bottom trawling.

    “Bottom trawling is unselective and severely damaging to seafloor ecosystems. The net indiscriminately catches every life and object it encounters. Thus, many creatures end up mistakenly caught and thrown overboard dead or dying, including endangered fish and vulnerable deep-sea corals that can live for hundreds of years or more. This collateral damage, called bycatch, can amount to 90% of a trawl’s total catch. In addition, the weight and width of a bottom trawl can destroy large areas of seafloor habitats that give marine species food and shelter. Such habitat destructions can leave the marine ecosystem permanently damaged.”

    Destructive Fishing

    1. polecat

      Bottom trawling will only stop, when there’s nothing left to trawl, same as with every other kind of resource extraction that humans desire. WE, in the main, don’t do moderation ! Only when Gaia wraps us upside our collective craniums, will we learn restraint .. and even then …… ??

  9. Phacops

    While not directly addressing the problem of needlessly discarding bycatch, our diet of fish can be expanded as shown by invasive fish becoming menu items. Lionfish, invasive in the Caribbean, are harmful to reef life. In Bonaire they have been hunted for over a decade and are eaten with gusto, even making its way to lionfish pizza. Now, one rarely spots them on dives where multiple sightings used to be common.

  10. KLG

    I grew up where “shrimping” is a major business. Funny, the state has licensed twice as many boats over the past 40 years and average catch is down. The shrimpers tend to blame the turtle excluder devices (TEDs) that prevent the killing of sea turtles, carcasses of which have disappeared from the beaches. But never mind about that. The first time I went out on a shrimp boat, I was appalled at the so-called by-catch pulled up from the bottom (all dead but for the whelks, locally known as conchs, and horseshoe crabs) that was shoveled overboard to serve as a buffet for the trailing seagulls. And the sandy bottom is scoured (essentially strip mined) repeatedly during the season. Nothing to see here. Move along…

  11. earthling1

    Why can’t we use the waste fish for garden fertilizer?
    Alot better than petroleum based chemicals.

  12. oaf

    Fish thrown back; living or not; at least return to the food chain that produces them.We wouldn’t think of gardening without replacing the nutrients removed from the soil; why do that with the oceans, and other bodies of water??? We should rightfully replace pound for pound the nutrients we remove from the waters; with those things that will help sea life prosper. Lets see: …what can we possibly throw into the water that aquatic life forms will prosper on???

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Every mineral nutrient in the sea originally leached out of and off of the land above sea level and flowed into the sea along with water flowing thereinto. So any mineral nutrition pulled out of the sea and spread back onto the land is going back to the land it came from.

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