DISCARDING UNWANTED CATCH is one of the oldest and most intractable of fishery management problems. Any method of harvesting fish, including relatively selective ones like angling, involves collateral capture of species and conditions of fish other than the desired target ones but the wholesale destruction of marine fauna became apparent in the fourteenth century, coinciding with the invention of trawling/dredging. The early history of this kind of commercial fishing contains a number of instances of concern expressed by the fishing community and, in recognition of that, the introduction of regulations to curtail the damage arising in shallow waters[i]. However, the adoption of mobile enclosing nets was not constrained; it was far too lucrative to be abandoned. Slow to become established, mobile enclosing nets are the dominant methods of harvesting fish throughout the world today. Despite this, the attendant destruction caused to marine biomass, diversity and the environment has never been completely out of the news. Whenever the topic surfaces it provokes public concern and, depending on the prominence of the news item, something akin to panic that something should be done to curtail the damage and/or the cause of it. The Landing Obligation is the latest attempt to grapple with the problem.

Photo courtesy of J. Woodlock

Photo courtesy of J. Woodlock

A REVIEW OF 800 technical accounts of discarding practice in 1994 estimated an average of 27 m tonnes of fish were discarded annually in commercial fisheries (the estimates ranged between 20 and 40 m tonnes)[ii]. In 1994 approximately 100 m tonnes of fish were caught in fresh and marine waters, one third of this figure being reduced to fish meal[iii] so the discarded millions translate handily enough into percentages. Because discards comprise a large proportion of undersized individuals of low average weight, the numbers killed and discarded very likely greatly exceed those landed for consumption. Understandably, the review identified small meshed shrimp trawls as inflicting the greatest damage.

IN THE MID-1990s marine fisheries were known to be undergoing dramatic and probably irreversible change. Another review by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations summarised the statistics.[iv] Almost 70% of the world’s “conventional” fish stocks were fully or over-exploited, depleted or “in the process of rebuilding”. The situation was regarded as unsustainable. Whitefish species, in particular cods, haddocks and hakes were in decline. Noteworthy was the excess of catching power and effort over the productive capacity of the resource. This was considered a significant contributor to the problem because excessive fishing – such as dragging nets repeatedly over the same areas of sea bed – causes incidental by-catch mortality.

DISCARDING WAS REGARDED as inevitably associated with industrial fishing but its effects could be mitigated, if not entirely eliminated. Greater gear selectivity and restrictions on fishing season and area had all demonstrated some measure of success. Investment in selectivity trials became a regular consumer of research funding although commercial fishermen displayed less enthusiasm in implementing the lessons learned.  

IN THE NORTH-EAST ATLANTIC Norway had shown what could be achieved. Before oil and gas claimed dominance over its economy in the late 1960s fishing had a significant role. Dwindling stocks prompted a change in attitude and in the 1980s a ban was introduced on rejecting unwanted catch.[v] Twenty five years later, the regulations were recommended to the European Union by Norway’s fisheries minister, Lisbeth Berg-Hansen.


NORWAY’S EXAMPLE WAS an inspiration to the British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who had taken a sceptical view of traditional harvesting methods culminating in “Hugh’s Fish Fight”, one of whose objectives was the elimination of excessive waste accompanying industrial fishing, epitomised by the practice of discarding. The campaign, fronted by celebrity chefs, was initiated in 2010; conducted in Britain, France, Spain, Germany and Poland. A thoroughly modern approach was adopted using social media, by emailing politicians and by forming alliances with other environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs). Various more traditional methods were included: a petition signed by close on one million people, parliamentary initiatives, camera-grabbing demonstrations, TV campaigns, all eventually crowned by a move to ban discarding in the European Parliament in 2013 which saw the birth of the Landing Obligation. The momentum was unstoppable but the story was far from over with the passage of the legislation. At this point Hugh’s Fish Fight against discarding appeared to peter out and the man himself walked off the field of battle leaving…chaos. His parting comments acknowledged that implementing the ban would require hard work by fishermen,IMG_0153 aa administrators, scientists and politicians. The public was advised to tell its public representatives “we care” and to exercise choice in the fish it purchases. The Landing Obligation has since become law but its interpretation is ever more confused and confusing.

THE PROSPECT OF A discards ban heralding a new dawn in fisheries management was greeted with acclamation. The new era would involve regionalisation, the end of micro-management by Brussels and, at long last, an industry that was “sustainable”.[vi]

HUGH’S FISH FIGHT had mobilised understandable public concern. It was well intentioned and superbly managed but it failed to comprehend how the commercial fishing industry operates, how organised and devious and self-destructive is its modus operandi.

THROUGHOUT THE CAMPAIGN ENGOs had lent their support but one potential contributor to the debate was deafeningly silent: the scientific community proffered little or nothing. Did the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea have no reservations? Now that the die is cast, individual scientists are not without opinions. One told me recently that the current confusion is to be expected when you allow your science policy to be driven by a celebrity chef! It is not a fair criticism. Marine scientists have contributed little towards resolving a problem that is older than their profession. Fearnley-Whittingstall acknowledged that the simplest way to curtail discarding is to cease fishing but that was always too straightforward a solution and an option the industry would never accept. He had advertised on his campaign website: “when people take action politicians have to listen”… but, to whom? The industry is led by effective lobbyists and it did not take long before they moved into action.


MANY CONCERNED CITIZENS believe in the innate goodness of those who exploit the sea. If only they realised there is a better way fishermen would not wreak the havoc they do. But harvesting fish in the same way as a farmer might manage his land and livestock is very much an outdated and inshore phenomenon; large, ocean-going boats are not tied to place or even particular species and the demands of making a living by operating enormous energy intensive machines impose a different kind of logic which allows little space for sentiment or sensible planning.

COMPLIANCE WITH REGULATIONS has always been an obstacle to responsible fisheries management and the Landing Obligation poses insuperable challenges. For one thing the occurrence of discards in the sea is uneven, hence their percentage in catches is unpredictable. That being so, ensuring that all are landed is impossible. The Landing Obligation is unenforceable. True, Norway apparently implemented a discard reduction policy with success but her industry takes a different attitude to the problem and it is regulated more closely than fisheries within the European Union.

ATTITUDES TO DISCARDING have changed considerably over the past five years. In the 1960s it used to be supposed that sensible fishermen would avoid concentrations of undersized or over-quota mature fish, move off to fish other areas. When the Landing Obligation was first mooted it was visualised as a dis-incentive to persist with the pursuit of fish which had to be brought ashore and stored at the expense of the boat owner which, in turn, would encourage a more responsible attitude in the industry; it would act as a driver towards increased selectivity. The fish could not be sold directly for human consumption. However, that stricture appears to be weakening and it is accepted that such fish may be rendered to fish meal that might be fed into the human food chain as, for example, food for caged salmon and/or “biomarine ingredients” for use elsewhere in food processing; there was, in the recent conference on discarding in Bilbao, a paper on how best to profit from this practice.[vii] Should a market be created for discards, then the industry will target them and, not for the first time, we will see immature and over-quota food fishes reduced to fish meal as a matter or routine.[viii]


THAT HOWEVER IS NOT the full extent of inevitable damage. If all discards are to be brought ashore, then some provision must be made for their volume when Total Allowable Catches (TACs) are calculated. The procedure is labelled “Quota uplift”. Discards consist largely of juvenile fish whose occurrence is unpredictable. Examples set out by the consultancy Poseidon demonstrate that the volumes of discard food fishes can fluctuate considerably from one year to the next.[ix] Because enforcement of the Landing Obligation is impossible, once quotas are enlarged there will be no guarantee that landed fish are discards. Discarding may still take place, unobserved, and the depredations of marketable sized individuals will continue. Commercial fishers have long argued for enlarged quotas so they can be depended on to take full advantage of the situation.

IF THE CALCULATION OF TAIMG_0161 aaCs is complicated, their distribution among fleets and metiers is an impossible challenge, as is the operation of those gears in different geographical areas which are, for example,  known to be nursery areas for certain species. How is a vessel operating several kinds of gear over a wider geographical range monitored? And there is the de minimis exemption – the small quantities of discards (less than 50 kg) that may be returned to the sea rather than being brought ashore, although they “must be recorded”.

THE LANDING OBLIGATION came into operation for pelagic fisheries in 2015. Only now are questions being raised about who will pay for the handling and storage of fish brought ashore. The prospect of this being a disincentive to the needless killing of discards will be weakened if the Commission or member states accept the bill.

SINCE THE FOUNDATION of the Common Fisheries Policy in the last century, the fishing community has bemoaned the complexity of regulations which, it claims, makes the practice of its calling ever more problematical; the industry itself, through its many and varied demands for derogations, exceptions and special treatment adds considerably to the confusion. However, the more complex the rules, the more difficult they are to enforce and there must be a suspicion that the industry values the opportunities complexity provides.

WHILE MEMBERS OF the European Parliament have basked in self-congratulation on their initiative in bringing the Landing Obligation into existence – at this stage the majority are likely to have forgotten all about it – the consequences of these damaging regulations will be far reaching into the future and they will further deplete the European marine environment.


[i] Roberts, C.M. (2007) The Unnatural History of the Sea. The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing. London. Gaia. Pp 448.

[ii] Alverson, D.L., M.H. Freeberg, J.G. Pope and S.A. Murawski (1994) A global assessment of fisheries bycatch and discards. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 339. Rome, Pp 233.

[iii] Consulted on 5 August 2015.

[iv] FAO Fisheries Department (1995) The state of world fisheries and aquaculture. FAO Rome, , Consulted on 5 August 2015

[v] The Guardian (21 March 2012) Norway leads calls for EU ban on fish discards

[vi] The Guardian (13 December 2013) EU discards ban will change the way we fish our seas

[vii] Zufia, J. (2015) New uses for landed catches. Conference: Landing Obligation in the new Common Fisheries Policy.  22 April 2015. Sinaval_Eurofishing (BEC), Bilbao.

[viii] Fahy, E. Overkill! Amazon, Pp 475.

[ix] Poseidon (2013) A case study review of the potential economic implications of the proposed CFP landings obligation

Consulted on 7 August 2015.