Brussels Briefing – 25/08/2008

A British trawler has caused an international incident after being filmed dumping cod and other white fish in the UK sector of the North Sea after catching the fish in the Norwegian sector, where dumping is prohibited.

The incident has once again illustrated the abhorrence of this disastrous practice. It is reckoned that the crew of the Shetland-based ‘Prolific’ dumped around 5,000 kg of cod and other white fish, equivalent to around 80% of its catch, causing outrage and fury amongst Norwegian fishermen who saw the film on TV. Although the practice of discarding fish has long been banned in Norwegian waters, it is not only still legal in EU waters, but indeed is insisted upon by the European Commission. More than 1 million tonnes of healthy fish are dumped dead back into the sea each year in EU waters under current fisheries management rules. Many fishermen in the UK’s whitefish fleet, who target Cod, Haddock, prawns etc., admit that discards can often account for over 50% of their catch! This criminal insanity is the unacceptable face of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

The problem is not one of the fishermen’s own making. It is the fault of the management system imposed upon fishermen by Brussels. Fishermen who land undersized or ‘out of quota’ fish are currently prosecuted and could end up with a criminal conviction and a hefty fine. In an industry already constrained by limitations to the number of days that can be spent at sea and by huge increases in fuel costs, time spent catching and sorting fish of no commercial value is regarded by fishermen as valuable time lost. Severe limitations on the amount of cod that can be landed also cause deep concern in the industry. Fishermen say that despite warnings from the scientists that cod stocks are still dwindling, they are seeing far greater numbers of big, mature cod on the grounds than ever before. In a mixed fishery where cod, haddock and other whitefish swim together, it is impossible for them to avoid catching cod and they are regularly forced to dump perfectly good, marketable fish, dead back into the sea, for fear of falling foul of Brussels regulations. This is obviously what happened in the case of the ‘Prolific’.

The European Parliament recently approved a report which will seek to phase out the practice of discards over a period of ten years. Frankly I think this report is a case of ‘too little, too late.’ If we are serious about tackling the discards issue then the first thing that has to be changed is the management policy. A much better system of management would be to rely solely on a ‘days at sea’ policy combined with a system of maximum sustainable yields (MSY), where fishermen could land everything they catch in the 10 or 12 days a month they are allowed to fish. This management system would reverse the current policy on discards. Instead of being compelled to dump fish over the side, fishermen would be compelled to land everything. It would become an offence to discard undersize or out of quota fish. Such a system, similar to that currently in place in Norway, would provide two immediate advantages for the industry. Firstly, scientists would get a much clearer picture of what fish were being caught and where. Such information would enable more accurate conservation and recovery plans to be devised. Also, when young, undersize fish are landed, fisheries inspectors could immediately call for a temporary closure of specific fishing grounds, to avoid further pressure on immature stocks.

Secondly, undersize fish and other species which previously would have been discarded could be sold to the processing sector, a sector that is desperate for raw material to supply the fishmeal and fish oil industry. The current shortage of sandeel in the North Sea, coupled with a dramatic rise in the price of imported fishmeal from Chile and Peru, has placed a considerable strain on the EU’s burgeoning aquaculture sector which relies on fishmeal as a staple diet for farmed fish. The fishmeal industry would be prepared to pay for such un-commercial fish at a price of around £60 a tonne, which is too little to encourage targeting of these species, but too much to encourage continued dumping into the sea, which in any case would be prohibited under the new regulations.
To police this system, all whitefish vessels would have to be fitted with waterproof, all-weather closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) which would provide a full view of the trawl deck and close views of the chutes where discarding would normally occur. A similar system has worked well in Alaska, Canada and New Zealand and is currently under trial in Denmark. It would almost certainly eliminate the wasteful discarding of healthy fish overnight.
If we are to avoid the kind of incident that has sparked fury in Norway last week, then the EU needs to take a far more robust approach to dealing with the disgrace of discards. A complete ban, similar to the situation in Norway, is the only way to go.