Sleeping With The Fishes: The European Union’s Attempt To Stop Bycatch From Walking The Plank

One-third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished.
That statistic does not include the number of fishes caught by small-scale fisheries, illegal fishing, or fishes discarded at sea. How much of a difference could those miniscule numbers make, though?

Consider this: one-third of fishes caught by commercial fisheries never make it to the consumer; they are bycatch, so they are unreported and discarded at sea. In 2016, the estimated total global catch was around 91 million tonnes. A third of that is, what, 30 million tonnes? That’s how much was discarded that year. So, yes, those “miniscule” numbers make a huge difference.

In 2013, the European Union (EU) estimated 1.7 million tonnes of fish had been discarded at sea. In order to curb that number, the EU amended its common fisheries policy (CFP) to include a ban on discarding unwanted fish. The CFP stated that all fish caught must be reported. The number of bycatch fishes would be included in the vessel’s catch quota. Vessels found to exceed catch quotas would be penalized. All 28 members of the EU were expected to gradually implement the ban from 2015 to 2019, with a total ban to be enacted by January 1st, 2019.

A report released by the UK government on February 8th, 2019, showed little compliance to the CFP by UK fisheries, which is significant because the UK is one of the top 3 fishing nations in the EU. UK trawlers continued throwing fish overboard, and the reluctance of both UK fishing vessels and the UK government to enforce on-board camera monitoring resulted in no significant reduction in discarded fish.  

So why didn’t it work? While there is no single answer, there are many factors that perhaps were not considered when implementing the ban.

First, the CFP dropped the onus on regulating the fishing industry to each individual nation. Most national governments were ill-equipped to change how their fisheries operated. Several initiatives were co-funded by the EU and each member nation to develop better fishing practices. Most programs were insufficiently funded, however, and did not bear any long-term fruit.

Second, individual fishing vessels would be harmed by the current punitive model. Their fishing vessels would be penalized for accidentally catching the wrong species, and their fishing economy would suffer as a result. The UK report states that since most EU nations were not enforcing camera monitoring on their vessels, UK vessels would be at a disadvantage if they had cameras installed.

Last, national governments did not see the economic viability of complying.Their quotas would be quickly exceeded, not because of their intended catch, but because of non-commercially viable bycatch, and they would lose financial gain.

The intention behind the CFP should be lauded. Unfortunately, it did not consider the economic and social needs of the front line fishers. With the UK set to leave the EU in March, the UK government can opt to take more manageable measures to reduce the number of fishes being discarded at sea.

Want to learn more? Check out these related stories:
How might Brexit affect UK fisheries? 
Has New Zealand’s fisheries management system been effective at curbing unreported bycatch?
Yum! Discards on the menu in Brussels, Belgium.

Primary references: (1), (2), (3).
Additional references used linked throughout post.

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