At the beginning of the decade, the fact that 1.7 million tonnes of fish were being discarded at sea every year in European waters was brought to the forefront of public and policy discussion. This figure shocked the European public and sparked a petition that gathered 870,000 signatures in support of a policy change to prevent discarding.
The EU responded by introducing the Landing Obligation into the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Also known as the ‘discards ban,’ many describe it as the most dramatic step-change in European fishing policy since the CFP’s implementation. This piece of legislation was simple in its directive: to make it a legal obligation for fishing vessels to land virtually everything they catch, with the aim of eliminating discards. It has been gradually implemented since 2015, and came into full force in January 2019.
Discarding can happen for one of two reasons: because the fish caught are not commercially valuable (for instance, they are of low value, or too small); or to avoid fulfilling quotas that would then prevent the vessel from fishing for other species. Many vessels target a wide range of species, and are unable to fish once the landed quota for any one of those species is exhausted. The practise of discarding had been used as a valve for the industry to prioritise high-value catches whilst staying within quota limits.
If allotted annual quota for a particular species is low, this quota can be filled quickly, even if the species is caught unintentionally. Once this quota limit is reached, the vessel is no longer permitted to catch anything, since it can’t guarantee that it can catch desired species without also catching the quota-limited species. This is known as a ‘choke’.
Unsurprisingly, fishermen are keen to avoid such chokes as they can be financially ruinous, preventing them from fishing for months at a time. When the Landing Obligation was announced, many members of the fishing industry were highly sceptical of the incoming legislation, since it required virtually every fish caught to be accounted for. Although many accepted its necessity to stop certain stocks becoming depleted, and many fishermen have themselves decried the waste of discarding edible fish, reservations about its practicality remained.
Traditional quota trading between fleets and between nations can help alleviate the likelihood of chokes developing. The Landing Obligation means that quota trading likely to become less flexible as fishing bodies keep back quota as ‘insurance’ against getting choked. Other quota distribution methods are needed to ensure a stalemate doesn’t arise. The UK Government has said it is working closely with the UK fishing industry to ensure maximum quota distribution efficiency, including extensive consultation to gather experience and knowledge of quota allocation processes.
Choke issues have also been at the forefront of collaborative work carried out by sea-basin-wide advisory bodies, the ‘Advisory Councils’, where stakeholders have been working to identify choke livelihood and methods to counteract these risks. See the North-Western Waters Advisory Council ‘Choke Mitigation Tool’ as an example.
The Lords Inquiry
In late 2018, in the months preceding full implementation, the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee examined the likely effectiveness of the Landing Obligation in UK waters. Their February 2019 report concluded that the UK was not prepared for full implementation as the phasing-in stage had seen little change to fishing practices. Given this lack of preparation, many predicted that the introduction of the Landing Obligation would lead to widespread choke incidents, possibly even within the first few weeks of implementation.
However, when the Lords published a follow-up report in July 2019, they found the first six months of implementation had not led to many choke events. Nor had there been many significant increases in landings of fish that would have previously been discarded. The Lords report draws attention to three potential explanations for this unexpected trend:
A significant number of fishermen are not complying with the new legislation and are continuing to discard fish at sea;
Recent improvements to gear selectivity have significantly reduced unwanted catches;
Choke species have not been abundant since full implementation - although this explanation is less widely supported.
It is likely that all three of these possible explanations have played a role, but the lack of recorded discards, both historical and current, makes it extremely difficult to decipher the causes behind this unexpected trend. The Lords report urges both the UK government and devolved administrations to remedy this going forwards.
The Lords report suggests that a significant number of vessels may have continued to discard fish at sea, discouraged from compliance by the penalties that landing all their catch could incur. Since most vessels do not carry surveillance systems, it is impossible to measure the extent of any illegal discards.
Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) systems on vessels, which incorporate CCTV, GPS and other sensors, could be installed to help tackle any issues associated with continued discards. The Lords report recommends this approach to ensure compliance, yet the practicalities of carrying this out are complex and would incur significant costs and many fishermen find them overly intrusive. Despite this, CCTV remains one of the most feasible methods to ensure compliance. Other methods - such as patrol boats, air surveillance or onboard observers - are considered impractical given the size and range of the UK fleet.
The lack of chokes and ‘unwanted’ landings observed could also be a consequence of improvements to gear selectivity. Improvements in selectivity, especially net mesh size and geometry, have been taken up by many vessels, reducing unwanted catches. This is good news for stock management, but proper monitoring is needed to assess the impact of selective gear uptake on fish stocks.
Selective fishing gear is a key method in working towards eliminating bycatch and discards. It can keep fishermen’s income flowing, reduce risk of chokes and ensure long-term stock sustainability. There is a lot of research in this area currently, with results being collated and made publicly available by initiatives such as GearingUp. However, gear selectivity can only do so much - some species are just too similar in shape, size and behaviour - and substantial bycatch of many species will continue, so this does not negate the need for monitoring compliance.
It is often a hefty investment on the part of the fishermen to install new gear, which is why Government assistance is necessary. Incentives can be granted to fishermen to encourage uptake, including a greater share of fishing quota.
What happens next?
The UK Government supports the Landing Obligation and it is very likely that it will remain in place following the UK’s exit from the EU, however the form in which it is implemented may change. The draft Fisheries Bill allowed for extra flexibilities to support fishermen in dramatically reducing discards, whilst also keeping fishing businesses afloat - for example, a central quota pool was proposed to act as a buffer against choke risks. From this pool, fishermen would be able to access additional quota if a limited, choke, stock threatened to curtail their fishing activity for other, more abundant species.
It is uncertain what action the government will take regarding monitoring and enforcement. If REM becomes compulsory for UK vessels, the UK could insist that any vessels from other nations fishing in UK waters must also follow the same regulations. Some industry representatives say that fishermen need to be granted greater incentives to comply, but the Lords report raises concerns that this would give the impression that the legal requirement to land all catch is voluntary.
The Lords report recommends that bycatch reduction plans, incorporating REM and selective fishing gear, should be developed by the Government as quickly as possible. They urge the Government and fishing bodies to heed scientific advice and ensure that the UK fishing industry develops a reputation for legal, sustainable fishing in all of its waters.