The landing obligation was agreed by EU Member States in 2013 with the aim of eliminating the practice of discarding fish at sea. This was widely considered to be a substantial change for the fishing industry. When we conducted an inquiry in late 2018, on the eve of the new rules coming fully into force, we heard significant concerns about the impact it could have on the UK’s fishing industry, port infrastructure and supply chains.
We were, therefore, concerned to find that the full implementation of the landing obligation appears to have had little effect during its first six months, with only small quantities of fish that would previously have been discarded being landed and little evidence of fishers being ‘choked’ by a lack of quota. While we heard some evidence that this was due to changes in fishing practices, many witnesses also expressed scepticism that the rules are being complied with. Despite the six-year lead-in, the UK Government and devolved administrations still do not have mechanisms in place to monitor compliance: coupled with a lack of historic data on catches this means there is no way of knowing the extent to which illegal discarding is taking place.
Continued discarding of fish could cause serious damage to fish stocks; the current UK Fisheries Minister has described discarding as “environmental vandalism”. And yet a significant number of exemptions to the landing obligation have been agreed, including for some of the species with the highest rates of discards. The EU has made significant progress in recent years in improving the health of the marine environment. Now fisheries ministers across the EU must ensure that the challenges the landing obligation poses for fishers and enforcement agencies do not result in a return to the ‘bad old days’ of short-term economic benefits overriding the long-term sustainability of fish stocks and the fishing industry.