The Fish Fight is far from finished

By Lauren Hoskin

In December last year, it seemed as though sustainability was at the top of the agenda. The Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, claimed: “The ban on discards – the shameful practice of throwing perfectly good fish away due to quotas – is a major milestone.” This is something Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaigners had fought for long and hard.

Yet recent research suggests that the EU’s reformed Common Fisheries Policy, which bans the disposal of unwanted fish, could have unintended consequences. Professor Mike Heath and his colleagues at the University of Strathclyde developed a mathematical model of the North Sea marine ecosystem to investigate the effects of the new policy. They found that whilst it was initially designed to reduce waste and increase fish stocks, it won’t result in these benefits at all.

Fish are discarded for three main reasons. Some are too small to be sold, some species are of no economic value and others may have to be discarded if more fish are caught than are legally allowed to be landed. However, the overhaul of legislation also included an increase in quotas, equivalent to the amount of fish that were formerly discarded. This counteracts any ecological benefits that might have been gained from the scheme, since ultimately the same numbers of fish are killed. Additionally, other marine life such as seabirds, mammals and crustaceans which previously scavenged on the discards will no longer get a free meal.

What also hasn’t been taken into account is what happens on those boats that carry on fishing as before, and bring ashore the entire catch. “The boats don’t necessarily have space aboard them to carry this material and it all has to be refrigerated for health and safety reasons. Once it’s ashore there aren’t very many processing plants in Britain that can actually cope with it all,” explains Professor Heath.

Through the computer model, they showed that a change in fishing practices towards the more selective methods could avoid taking unwanted catch from the oceans. This would benefit both fish stocks and the remaining marine ecosystem. Yet this will be a tough move for the industry. “There isn’t any magic fishing gear that’s going to enable them not to catch the stuff they don’t want to at the moment, so that’s going to make it very hard,” acknowledges Professor Heath.

It looks as though one single policy won’t be enough to solve the ever increasing problem of depleting fish stocks and deteriorating ecosystems. But one thing is for sure: Hugh’s Fish Fight is far from finished.



Image: Fish by Sundy Lyn under Creative Commons License