Fishing discard ban: a failure of enforcement

Since 2015, EU law has banned fishers from returning unwanted fish back into the ocean, with the ‘landing obligation’ requiring all catches to be brought back to land. But is the UK abiding by the rules? With fisheries set to be significant in the UK’s negotiations for a trade deal with the EU, Green Peer Natalie Bennett calls for the UK to set an example in protecting the oceans.

Fishing trawler surrounded by seagulls
Fishing trawler surrounded by seagulls

Image: Ed Dunens / Creative Commons 

Natalie Bennett

Many Green World readers will probably recall from around 2014 the campaign against fish discards, the dumping of dead fish back into the ocean, particularly because fishers were exceeding their quotas with them.

It featured considerable community involvement, petitioning and campaigns, celebrity chefs, and final apparent victory in an EU-wide ban. 

The technical term for the rules that resulted is the ‘landing obligation’ – if you catch fish, they should be brought to port and used.

It is a demonstration of the fact that I’ve been highlighting in recent weeks, that people talk about ‘EU rules’, but in many cases the protections, whether of workers’ rights or food standards or environmental rules, that we will be well on the way to losing with Brexit have been hard won by campaigners.

Yet at a debate in the House of Lords last week, the hollowness of that victory was exposed. For there is a ban, but that ban is not being enforced in the UK as it could be were observers to be placed on fishing boats and remote electronic monitoring (REM) installed. 

Fishers have not had help from the government to adapt their gear to better target their activities to reduce out-of-quota and undersized catches, while the economically crucial fleet of small boats (under 10 metres in length, which provides the vast bulk of employment in UK fisheries) has been given insufficient support in managing quotas.

There is an issue here for them, known as ‘choke’, that a small business person might find themselves having to stop fishing because they’ve unexpectedly reached their quota for a particular species. It is something the government should be helping the industry to deal with legally and in an environmentally appropriate way.

Now, however, there’s significant evidence that the landing obligation is being ignored. The details of the catch being landed at ports don’t match what previous records show must be being caught.

Speakers in the Lords debate suggested that NGOs and campaigners had taken their eye off the ball in not following up on enforcement. That’s unfair.

Last year Client Earth issued an important report focusing on the failures of enforcement in France, Denmark and Spain, and it surely isn’t unreasonable to think that if governments pass laws they should be expected to make efforts to enforce them.

This is a debate being conducted, of course, in the context of Brexit, and all eyes on publication of the government’s Fisheries Bill today (29 January), with fisheries expected to be a significant part of the negotiations with the EU after our relationship after the transition period.

It is clear what our position should be on discards in these discussions. We should be committing to keeping and enforcing the landing obligation, and demanding EU states do likewise.

For the idea that we can fence in our fish stocks and keep them for ourselves is clearly nonsense. What happens in our waters will impact on the health of the seas elsewhere, and vice versa.

Fish don’t carry passports, don’t stop at borders. Due to climate change their populations are migrating.

And we’re in a situation of massive long-term decline in fish numbers, and indeed the whole quality of our marine environment.

Discards and overfishing are only one part of that disaster, but they have to be tackled if we’re to arrest the decline, along with vastly boosting the area of our seas covered by Marine Protected Areas and No-Take Zones of full protection.

As I prepared for the debate, a traditional phrase kept coming to mind: ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea’. Deployed usually by people perhaps a little fed up with friends lamenting a broken heart, behind it is an assumption that no longer holds true.

As on land, our natural world is in a state of collapse, our perceptions of abundance grossly misshapen by shifting baseline syndrome. The loss of cod stocks might not be so evident as ‘insectageddon’, but it is just as serious.

I’ve written elsewhere about the need for systemic thinking about our oceans, but we can start with the simple and obvious. 

We must not be taking more fish from the ocean than can replace themselves, and we certainly can’t afford to kill sea creatures that we don’t even intend to use.

Natalie’s speech in the House of Lords debate is available to watch on her website.