In 2013 the EU agreed new legislation to reduce, and eventually eliminate, discarding by fishers. An estimated 1.7 million tonnes of fish and other marine animals were being thrown back into the sea each year, because fishers were catching species that they did not want or that they were not allowed to keep. A public petition against the practice, spearheaded by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, had attracted 870,000 signatures, as conservation groups stressed the wastefulness of discarding given the number of fish that did not survive their return to the ocean.
The new rules, requiring fishers to land their catch (with some exceptions), have been phased in since 2015 and came into force in full on 1 January 2019. At the time of our inquiry—November and December 2018—the UK fishing industry and government enforcement agencies should have had several years of adhering to this ‘landing obligation’ on some stocks and been fully prepared for it applying to all stocks on 1 January. Instead, we found little evidence that fishers had adhered to the new rules during the phasing in period, or that there had been any meaningful attempt to monitor or enforce compliance. And witnesses were virtually unanimous in their view that the UK was not ready to implement or enforce the landing obligation from 1 January.
The new rules require a fundamental change in fishing practices and in how compliance is monitored, and pose a number of challenges to fishers, policy makers and enforcement agencies. EU fishing policy uses fishing limits, or quotas, to prevent damage to fish stocks from overfishing. Previously, only fish that were landed counted against quota and so fishers could simply discard any excess fish. Under the new rules fishers can’t discard, so they are likely to reach their limit quickly for some species, and this could prevent them fishing for species for which they do have remaining quota–because in some areas it can be very difficult to target one species without inadvertently catching another. It is extremely disappointing that action that could have been taken to help reduce this risk—such as making changes to how quota is allocated and using different techniques and technologies to avoid catching unwanted fish—was not taken during the phasing-in period.
Enforcing the law, and preventing fishers from discarding, risks a potentially devastating impact on some fishing businesses. But we heard little evidence that either the UK Government or devolved administrations are in a position to do this. It is widely believed that the only effective way to monitor whether discards are occurring at sea is by installing cameras and other monitoring devices on vessels. The UK Government, however, has argued that it would be unfair to require this of UK fishers when it is not required by other Member States. Despite having had since 2013 to secure agreement from other countries, this has not been achieved. The UK is, therefore, in a position where the only tools it has to monitor compliance are likely to be largely ineffectual.
It cannot be right that, five years after legislation is agreed, the UK is in a position where it cannot enforce the law—both because it does not have the tools to monitor compliance and because doing so could cause significant harm to the fishing industry. The most likely scenario appears to be that discarding will continue, leaving the environmental concerns that prompted the introduction of the new rules unaddressed. It is extremely disappointing that the UK Government did not do more during the phased introduction of the landing obligation to make it workable: Ministers must now use the opportunity created by leaving the EU to put in place the on-board monitoring requirements and changes to quota distribution that could make a discard ban enforceable and effective.