Discards: a global problem
The catching of unwanted species is a pervasive problem in fisheries worldwide. In most cases unwanted catches are returned dead to the sea as discards - a waste of natural resources, and a threat to the health and stability of marine ecosystems.
In North East Atlantic and Mediterranean European fisheries, discarding usually occurs for one of three reasons:
- to avoid unwanted catches;
- because fishing quotas have been reached;
- because potentially commercial species are below the minimum size allowed for consumption or are of low commercial value.
For example, with current fishing methods, undersize fish make up the bulk of catches of hake and red mullet in the Mediterranean. In the European Atlantic, the ‘high-grading’ of catches subject to quotas (throwing back smaller, though legally-seized, fish into the ocean in favour of more profitable larger fish) results in the discarding of fish for market reasons.
Likewise, fishing gear which suffers from ‘low selectivity’ (does not effectively select a target species) is detrimental to threatened species such as marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds which are unintentionally caught and then released with little chance of survival.
Damaging the marine environment
Discarding damages fish stocks by killing juvenile individuals before they reach reproductive age. An additional ecological effect is the impact on the structure of marine communities.
The populations of some seabird species, for example, are suffering artificial increases, as they have become used to exploiting discards as a predictable food resource, instead of more traditional “natural” sources. Some fishing operations damage habitat-forming invertebrates by fishing on sensitive habitats.
THE EU LANDING OBLIGATION: ELIMINATING DISCARDS
From a socio-economic point of view, a fishery without unwanted catches is more efficient in time and labour, as time and effort is not wasted sorting catches. European fisheries are currently transitioning to reducing discards, and to bringing all catches to land as part of the EU fisheries ‘Landing Obligation’.
Given the current impossibility of completely avoiding unwanted catches, and the fact that Common Fisheries Policy will progressively phase out discards of commercial species subject to quota or minimum size (MCRS), we need to devise technical/technological solutions, along with economic and social incentives, to gradually eliminate unwanted catches in European fisheries.
Developing practical solutions, increasing producers’ and consumers’ awareness, and placing greater economic value on discards-free fishing has the potential to considerably reduce unwanted catches, and bring about a more ecologically sound fishing regime.