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Eliminating discards in EU fisheries: Questions and Answers

28 March 2007
by eub2 -- last modified 28 March 2007

The EU is looking to reduce unwanted catches and eliminate discards in European fisheries. Discarding is the practice of dumping overboard unwanted fish or other marine organisms which have been caught unintentionally.


What are discards?

Discards are fish and other organisms which are caught accidentally in fishing gear and are thrown back in the sea. The FAO definition of discards includes both commercially exploited marine species and any other marine animal which is caught incidentally such as non-target finfish, crustaceans, molluscs, sea mammals and seabirds. Commitments made by the EU in the context of the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity require the inclusion of species which are not of commercial interest in the initiatives to reduce discards. The FAO definition will therefore be the basis for the future discard policy.

Why is discarding a problem?

In most cases discarded organisms do not survive. Discarding therefore undermines the conservation policy, a cornerstone of the CFP, by killing of fish without making any economic returns. By discarding juvenile fish, fish of little or no economic interest or those which are over-quota, future yields (and hence income) are being lost. Discards of mature fish both waste resources in the short term and reduce the amount of adult fish which would otherwise have been available to support future productivity.

Discarding of non-target species may be economically 'neutral', but it can have a serious environmental impact, in particular on marine biodiversity. As such it runs counter to the spirit of other EU policies, as well as of some international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. In the case of certain rare marine organisms, even a small by-catch may be incompatible with the urgent recovery of these populations that is required in international law under CITES.

What are the causes of discarding?

The main reason for high by-catches is too much fishing. When fishing pressure on commercial stocks is too high, the stocks decline, and their age structure alters. This leads to smaller fish stocks which contain very few larger fish. As a result, a high proportion of the commercial fish caught will be juveniles. Fishers therefore increase the fishing pressure even further to try to make their activities economically worthwhile, thus entering into a vicious circle. At the same time, more and more non-target species fish are being caught in the process. The overall result is a high proportion of organisms being discarded, both of the target species and of non-target organisms.

Other reasons for discarding relate to both market considerations and regulatory requirements. Market-driven discarding (‘high-grading’) can take place in two ways: when the by-catch is a species with low market value and when the target species fish being caught are not as valuable as those which the operator hopes to find later. In many fisheries, economically-driven discarding is at least as important as discarding induced by regulations. Examples are the discarding of plaice in flatfish fisheries targeting sole, or discarding ('slipping') in the pelagic fisheries (herring, mackerel, for example).

A management system which relies on landing quotas as the main regulator of fishing activity will lead to discards particularly when various species are caught together in mixed fisheries. When the quota for one species is exhausted or a vessel does not have a quota for a species which is caught in its fishery, the options are either to stop the fishery altogether or to continue fishing other species and then discard those for which the vessel has no quota. Regulations specifying a maximum percentage composition of a species kept on board will lead to a similar result. A management system which entirely relies on effort control, without associated landing quotas, would not produce this type of discards, though there would likely still be discarding for other reasons – economic ones.

Minimum landing size regulations also lead to some discards when the selectivity of the gear is such that some fish below the minimum landing sizes are caught. This is particularly the case in mixed fisheries as there isn't one gear design which corresponds to the minimum landing size of all the species caught together.

How big a problem is discarding?

It is difficult to gauge the true scale of discarding in world fisheries, or even within the EU, due to the lack of reliable and easily comparable data. The most recent estimate at worldwide level was made by the FAO in 2005, which estimated the global discard rate at 8% as a proportion by volume of total catch. Figures vary widely according to the fishery, from 3.7% in small-scale artisanal fisheries up to 52% in trawl fisheries for demersal finfish and shrimps.

Within the EU, data on discards has been collected regularly since 2002 under the Data Collection Regulation. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) made a study for the commission in 2002 based on data up to the year 2000. It is this study which was used by the FAO for the European section of its 2005 study. The ICES study showed a very low rate of discards in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (4.9%) compared to a much higher rate (13%) in the northeast Atlantic. Within EU fisheries, discard rates ranged widely, from negligible in the herring and sprat fishmeal fisheries in the Baltic Sea, to 70-90% in a number of major demersal trawl fisheries.

What is the economic cost of discarding to the EU fishing industry?

No global estimates have been made of how much value is lost to the industry through discarding. However, a 2001 study by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute (The Hague) sought to quantify the cost of discards in three specific European fisheries. The authors found that in 1998, the Dutch beam trawl fishery discarded fish of marketable species with a future value of €160 million, or 70% of the value of their 1998 landings. UK North Sea whitefish trawlers discarded cod, haddock and whiting worth € 75 million in 1999, equivalent to 42% of the value of their landings. And the French Nephrops fishery discarded between 20 and 45% of the catch by weight according to species in 1997, representing fish worth nearly 100% of annual landings.

In other words, in those fisheries which have the worst records for discarding, the practice can destroy almost as much economic value as the fishery is able to create.

What measures can be taken to reduce unwanted by-catch and eliminate discards?

The key to reducing unwanted by-catches and thus discards is to reduce overall fishing pressure. Reducing overall fishing pressure will not only lead to much less discarding of undersized fish, but will also reduce the incidental by-catch of non-target marine organisms and will thus have a positive impact on biodiversity and the structure of marine ecosystems.

The EU's commitment to manage fish stocks according to the maximum sustainable yield approach will therefore play an important role in reducing the extent of discarding in European fisheries. However, while less overall fishing pressure will reduce the proportion of small fish caught, it will not remove other causes of discarding, such as above-quota catches or high-grading.

Additional measures can also contribute directly to reducing unwanted by-catches, such as real-time area closures, obligation to switch fishing grounds, prohibition of specific gears, promotion of selective gears, quota flexibility, discarding taxes, expropriation of illegal fish, and adjustments to existing TAC and/or effort management measures. However, the Commission believes that in general a results-based approach will be most effective. Detailed technical measures are difficult to control and enforce, and have not always produced the results anticipated.

A discard ban and standards for maximum acceptable by-catch can replace many such measures, by providing a real incentive for the industry to implement the same kind of technologies and practices which such measures would regulate, while leaving it to the operators to develop the most appropriate practical solutions for their own specific situations. Such results-based approaches have been used in fisheries elsewhere with good results.

How could real-time closures proposed be implemented?

Criteria for real-time closure of fisheries can be defined on the basis of by-catch monitoring in a specific area of a specific fishery. When a certain proportion of landings are above acceptable limits (for example high concentrations of young fish), a closure will be triggered. Reopening may then be contingent on evidence that fisheries within the by-catch limits can be conducted, based on limited exploratory fishing.

A real time closure system will require Member States to agree to issue such closures in an extremely short timeframe, which cannot be secured through the current decision making procedures. In order to ensure non-discriminatory action, general mechanisms must be established to monitor by-catch information, analyse this information and issue information to the relevant Member State when limits are overshot. Alternatively, new EU procedures will need to be set up which are rapid enough to make real-time closures possible.

What are the implications of a discards ban for Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas?

Counting by-catches against quotas would be a strong motivation to reduce by-catches. At present quotas are defined without inclusion of discards. In order for quotas to be defined on the basis of total catch, TACs may need to be redefined. A system providing for greater flexibility in individual quota uptake may be necessary in mixed fisheries. In order to enable the fleet to benefit from variations in catches of quota species, systems for transfers between vessels and for limited transfers between years and species may need to be investigated. Such systems will, however, largely be the responsibility of Member States.

What will happen to the fish that are caught which are no longer discarded?

Since operators will have to bring everything they catch back to the harbour, systems will have to be set up to deal with landings which would previously have been discarded. Such landings could be used to produce protein and oil, or be sold for human consumption. In order not to encourage new 'targeted' fisheries developing, it is important that the individual vessels do not receive the income from any such sales of by-catch. A small fraction of that income might be paid to the vessel, however, to cover handling expenses.

Systems for handling the remaining funds would need to be set up and decisions to be made about the purposes for which these funds could be used. It may, for instance, be possible to use the proceeds to co-finance the by-catch regulation system, or observer on-board schemes, or to support pilot experiments aimed at developing practices and techniques which would help reduce by-catches even further.

What would be the socio-economic impact of a discard ban?

The progressive implementation of a discard ban may result in net short-term cost increases for operators. Labour and other costs resulting from on-board processing and storage of the catch are likely to increase as would landing costs.

The use of closed areas and requirements to move to other fishing grounds would also impact on fuel consumption and time spent at sea. Some complementary tools, such as the compulsory use of selective gears, could also reduce short-term profitability.

The concrete impacts in any specific fishery will depend on the current level of discards, the current economic situation of that fishery, and the condition of the target stock(s). The largest cost increases are most likely in the fisheries that generate the highest levels of by-catch (for example, multispecies and demersal fisheries). The impact of a net cost increase is also likely to be more substantial in fisheries characterised by excess fleet capacity, depressed stocks and poor profitability. Any cost increases are, however, expected to diminish over time as means develop to reduce unwanted by-catches.

These short term costs must be weighed against the economic benefits that will arise in the medium term from the increase in the size and quality of the stocks as a result of the progressive reduction of discards. Similarly, a progressive discard ban will also benefit other neighbouring fisheries which target fish which are discarded by other fleets: the size of their stocks would increase, as would the medium- to long-term profitability of these fisheries.

The impact on small-scale fisheries should be lower to the extent that they generally have lower levels of discards. This will provide a comparative advantage to communities which are dependent on such fisheries. The obligation to land could also create new job opportunities for these coastal communities.

How quickly is a new discard policy in EU waters likely to come into force?

The principles for the new discard policy will be discussed with member states and stakeholders in 2007. Starting from 2008 regulations will be proposed on a fishery-by fishery basis.

Source: European Commission