Select Committee on European Scrutiny Sixth Report




COM(02) 656

Commission Communication on a Community Action Plan to reduce discards of fish.

Legal base:
Document originated:26 November 2002
Deposited in Parliament:29 November 2002
Department:Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration:EM of 9 December 2002
Previous Committee Report:None
To be discussed in Council:No date set
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared, but relevant to any further debate on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy


  6.1  The discarding of fish[11] has been a cause for concern on both environmental and economic grounds, and the Commission has sought in this Communication to address various facets of the problem as it arises in relation to the Community's fishing fleets in all areas of operation, but with particular emphasis on its own waters in the north-east Atlantic, the Baltic and the Mediterranean.

The current document

  6.2  The Communication first seeks to identify the magnitude of the problem. It says that all estimates arise from scientific sampling programmes, and that, although these date back to the 1930s, routine sampling started in 1973 in Scotland for species taken in the North Sea and in waters off the west of Scotland. According to the Commission, sampling programmes have usually been directed at demersal[12] species, such as haddock and whiting, often taken in "mixed" fisheries where several species are taken simultaneously, and where each operation of the gear will almost always catch some fish which are discarded. The results indicate that, despite increases in mesh sizes and an increasing array of other technical measures intended to reduce catches of small, often juvenile fish, the proportion of fish discarded for each year class in the waters in question has not changed significantly since the early 1970s, with a minimum of around 20%, and maxima as high as 80% in some cases. The Communication also notes the importance of the selectivity of fishing gear, with that of large mesh size leading to less discarding.

  6.3  The Communication next examines the reasons for discarding, which it describes as both legislative and economic, with the two operating simultaneously in many cases. On the first count, it notes that discarding, affecting both juvenile and adult fish, is often compulsory, for example where fish are less than the defined minimum landing size, or where catch quotas, including those established in the waters of third countries, have been exceeded. In the latter case, discarding may be increased by Member States allocating national quotas to particular sectors or to individual vessels, and may also arise when Member States prohibit sales of species for public health reasons. The Commission says that discarding for economic reasons is liable to occur where commercially less valuable species are occupying storage space needed for fish of higher commercial value, where larger fish of a particular species attract a higher market price, or where certain species caught, such as whiting, may be less acceptable to consumers. Another factor on lengthy voyages is the deterioration of fish caught earlier on.

  6.4  As regards the consequences of discarding, the Communication points out that the majority of fish in question, particularly in the case of roundfish, are dead or moribund. From a biological point of view, this means that they are either removed from the spawning stock in the case of adults, or from the potential spawning biomass in the case of juvenile fish, which tend to account for the "vast majority" of discards. This in turn has economic consequences in as much as it reduces the potential yield from the fishery. The Commission also observes that, since the real quantities of discards are unknown, it is difficult to assess actual fishing mortality rates, especially of young fish, and hence to evaluate the impact of measures taken to improve selectivity.

  6.5  The rest of the Communication looks at ways of reducing the level of discards, which the Commission sees as a key element in achieving a responsible and sustainable fishery. However, it suggests that it will not be possible to achieve significant results by applying only one or two simple rules, and that the problem requires action on several fronts.

  6.6  The measures identified by the Commission as being applicable, to a greater or lesser extent to all stocks, include:

  • securing a general improvement in the stocks so as to reduce the proportion of small juveniles in the catch, whilst recognising that greater gear selectivity is likely to prove difficult in mixed fisheries without reducing catches of target species as well;

  • requiring, in line with practice in Norwegian legislation, fishermen to depart from grounds where high quantities of small fish are being caught, though it also suggests that, as enforcement might be difficult, a voluntary arrangement might be more effective;

  • making better use of low-value fish, where the Commission intends by March 2003 to initiate a study on potential uses for direct or indirect human consumption;

  • reducing discards arising from quotas, by such means as establishing appropriate by-catch quotas, seeing whether national quota allocation systems can be made more flexible, revising quota allocation keys periodically to take greater account of recent fisheries practice, making greater use of effort limitation to control fishing pressure, and setting multi-species total allowable catches (TACs): in recognising that there could also be some drawbacks - with, for example, by-catch quotas leading to the deliberate fishing for such species - the Commission says that it will consult with Member States before June 2003 on the practicability and desirability of introducing some combination of these proposals;

  • the introduction of pilot projects in which fishermen are given a financial incentive for voyages in which vessels would be free to engage in any economically viable fishing activity which would significantly reduce discards;

  • the continued monitoring of discard levels, particularly in fisheries which are inadequately covered at present.

  6.7  The Communication goes on to consider a range of technical measures governing such factors as net structure, minimum landing sizes, species composition, and closed or controlled areas and/or seasons. On towed nets, it notes the recent changes made for cod and hake, including increases in mesh size and different shaped mesh panels, and it says that it intends shortly to make a proposal extending this approach more widely, and that it will report during 2004 on the need for further increases in mesh sizes. It also points out that, since static nets are highly selective when used properly and produce few discards, their more widespread use might be encouraged, provided by-catches of cetaceans and seabirds can be prevented. However, it also notes a number of potential problems, notably those arising where such gear is left unattended, and it says that it will be reviewing its use.

  6.8  The Commission says that, although minimum landing sizes are an important line of defence against the capture of small fish, the fact that undersized fish constitute the majority of discards points to the need for a closer relationship between landing sizes and the regulations governing gear selectivity. It says that it will be proposing appropriate changes, and that it will also be looking further at the present rules which fix a minimum percentage of target species that may be retained on board, thus maximising the percentage of non-target species.

  6.9  Other technical measures to be reviewed by the Commission include the prevention of fishing in areas with a high concentration of juvenile fish, and closures within a defined area for a limited period when dense concentrations of juvenile fish occur unpredictably.

  6.10  Finally, the Communication examines the case for a ban on discards, similar to the legal prohibition which exists in Norway. It says that, whilst this might be attractive at first sight as a means of conveying a clear signal on the need to avoid large catches of small fish, it nevertheless poses a number of problems which would need to be addressed. These include the difficulty of effective enforcement, the use made of such fish (which are often undersized) when landed, and the need to consider whether the landing of fish which would otherwise have been discarded should be counted against existing TACs. The Commission says that it will consult Member States and the fishing industry during 2003 to examine ways of addressing these problems, in anticipation of a possible proposal in 2005 for a ban to take place in 2006. It will also consult with Norway about the operation of the system in place there.

The Government's view

  6.11  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 9 December 2002, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Commons) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Elliot Morley) says that, in line with its response last year to the Commission's Green Paper on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, the Government welcomes the Communication and looks forward to receiving detailed proposals in the areas identified as priorities. He says that the UK recognises that fish stocks are currently in a very difficult situation, and that a European response is needed that will bring about as rapid a recovery as possible in order to secure a long-term future for the fishing industry, whilst enabling sustainable fishing activity to continue in the meantime. He notes that a significant reduction in discards must be one of those steps, but that it would be helpful to develop the Commission's exposition of the available scientific information in a more comprehensive manner before the debate on the Communication is launched. He also suggests that the Communication concentrates somewhat on the situation in the north-east Atlantic (where information may be more reliable), and that further work may be needed in other areas. However, the Minister adds that research carried out by his Department suggests that a discard ban, as applied by Norway, was unlikely to be workable in a Community context, and that the UK believed that a range of measures was needed, tailored to the fisheries involved and building upon the technical conservation rules already in place.


  6.12  The issue of discards has long been a matter of concern, and we therefore endorse the welcome which the Government has given this Communication, which provides a useful analysis of the problem and of a range of possible solutions. Having said that, it is clear that any action to be taken as a result of the Communication will be the subject of further Commission proposals, and, for that reason, we do not think it necessary at this stage to recommend a free-standing debate. However, the document would be relevant to any more general debate which might be held in future on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.

11   Defined as the throwing back into the sea of fish (including crustaceans and molluscs) retained by fishing gear and brought on board a fishing vessel. Back

12   Other fisheries, including those for pelagic fish, also incur discards, but have been less routinely sampled. Back

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