This practice constitutes a serious threat to the conservation of fishing resources and the marine ecosystem.
Oceana believes that a ban on discards is the most effective measure.
The Guardian newspaper released a video of a UK fishing vessel discarding more than 80% of its catch. It is the first time that this irresponsible practice has been so explicitly documented. Over five tones of fish were caught in Norwegian waters where discarding is banned and were later discarded in European Community waters where it is authorized.
Discards constitute one of the world's fisheries' main problems. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines them as "the part of the catch that is returned to the sea for any reason."
The lack of regulations in the majority of fishing grounds causes a great part of the catch to be returned to the sea, dead or with little chance of survival as they are non-marketable species, protected or the ship has filled its fishing quota. In some cases, fish that are perfectly marketable are discarded to make room on the vessel for specimens that have a higher sales value, an unethical and wasteful practice known as highgrading.
In the European Union, around 1,400,000 tones of catches are discarded annually. This represents 20% of the world total discards. Ricardo Aguilar, Oceana Europe's Research Director, confirms the severity of these quantities: "Wasting fishing resources is a global problem. However, the magnitude it reaches in European waters is unacceptable, especially when 88% of EU stocks are overfished. We cannot understand how this can be allowed and how in some areas, such as the North Sea, a quantity equivalent to 10% of the entire area's biomass is discarded and therefore completely wasted."
Several of the fisheries with the highest discard rates are concentrated in the North Sea. Almost one million tones of species such as cod, haddock, whiting, plaice and sole are discarded due to the EU’s inability to establish effective measures. The European Commission is currently developing two discard regulations. One of them will include a requirement for the fleet to reduce by-catches in flatfish beam trawling in those waters where 70% of the catches are discarded.
However, Oceana, the international marine protection organization, is skeptical toward this approach and it encourages the development of a set of more ambitious measures. Among them is the progressive implementation of a ban on discards, a policy successfully adopted by Norway.
Norway has been enforcing its fishing discard policy for over 25 years. It has also been adopting measures that have managed to keep average discard rates below 4%, compared to an average of 14.6% in European Community waters. Many of the Norwegian fishing enforcement measures are aimed at ensuring that unwanted specimens are not caught. Thus, the regulatory framework prohibits discarding the main commercial species in Norwegian waters, forcing fishermen to improve the selectivity of their fish gear. Fishermen also have to switch to another fishing area when the presence of juvenile fish is high or when by-catches begin to be significant and additionally, temporary bans are put in place where necessary to maintain resources in good condition.
The Norwegian model is currently not being considered as an example to follow by the European Union. Currently, cooperation between the two is in the form of bilateral agreements to allow both EU and Norwegian vessels to fish in each others waters. However, incidents such as this where a British trawler takes advantage of the discrepancy between the different discards policies to dump unwanted fish once it arrives back in EU waters, highlights the necessity of improving cooperation
Xavier Pastor, Executive Director of Oceana Europe, considers that "not only is the European Community fishing policy leading to bad management of EU fishing grounds, it is also undermining the effectiveness of the one of the world's most advanced discard policies."
Video of a UK fishing vessel discarding more than 80% of its catch available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2008/aug/12/fish.trawler.prolific