Europe’s Ban On Discarding Unwanted Fish Could Do More Harm Than Good

By Shweta Iyer on May 13, 2014 5:30 PM EDT

eu fish discard
The European Union's fish discard ban, which bans the practice of dumping tons of unwanted fish back into the sea may not be the right solution to improve dwindling fish stocks. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

The European Union's fish discard ban, which bans the practice of dumping tons of unwanted fish back into the sea may not be the right solution to improve dwindling fish stocks and may in fact harm wildlife, according to a research conducted by University of Strathclyde.

According to a press release Tuesday, the study headed by Professor Mike Heath and published in the journal Nature Communications, European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) landmark ban on ending the practice of throwing away the bycatch may have the opposite effect of its intended outcome. The new CFP took effect on 1 January 2014 and will phase out the discarding of fish gradually between 2015 and 2019.

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The ban sought to curtail overfishing and improve fish stocks by ensuring that all juvenile, unwanted fish are left alive in the sea, but whether this objective will be met or not is uncertain says Prof. Heath, from Strathclyde's Department of Mathematics and Statistics. He said, "Wildlife everywhere capitalises on waste from human activity, and discarded fish are food for a wide range of seabirds, marine mammals, seabed animals and other fish. Therefore, banning discards of fish could have unintended effects on the ecosystem."

The team developed a computer simulation model of the North Sea marine ecosystem and used it to investigate the effects of changes in the fishing pressure and the proportion of fishery catch which is discarded at sea. The discarded fish are food for scavenging animals on the seabed, birds, and marine mammals and stopping the discard will impact them.

The team instead suggested practical methods like changing fishing practices. Preventing capture of unwanted fish had dramatic effects in the model which affected the entire food web, with major benefits for birds, mammals, and fish stocks. "Improved Selectivity" is the key to this, which involves modifying the fishing gear used so that unwanted fish are not caught and changing when and where people fish.

Both approaches have been found to be effective albeit with different conservation benefits. Dr Robin Cook, who also worked on the research, said: "Our results highlight the importance of considering the broader ecosystem consequences of fishery management. Policy changes to reduce discards affect the food web and, without careful consideration, may dissipate or negate intended benefits.

"Inflating landing quotas to accommodate the entire catch is an inadequate solution with few conservation benefits. On the other hand, the effective reductions in harvest rates resulting from changes in fishing practices to eliminate the capture of unwanted fish can deliver conservation benefits, especially in heavily exploited systems. "These ecological effects need to be considered alongside the practical, societal and economic issues in developing a sustainable policy."

The issue of discarding fish that are unmarketable due to size or species is an age old problem. Back in the 1890s there were debates in the UK parliament on the quantities of plaice thrown away by fishing fleets in the North Sea because they were too small to be sold.

But discard has reached unimaginable proportions today and the EU's reformed Common Fisheries Policy is an attempt to eradicate the practice by obliging fishing vessels to land all of their catch.

The key issue for the policy is the proper balance between encouraging trade by over compensating and discouraging trade by under compensating. According to the Strathclyde research, full compensation, in which quotas are raised by an amount equivalent to the quantity of fish currently discarded, negates any conservation benefits. On the other hand, forcing improvements in the selectivity of fisheries by offering no compensation on bycatch has dramatic conservation benefits; hence there is a trade-off between practicality and ecological benefit.

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