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expert reaction to vote on EU Common Fisheries Policy

MEPs voted through reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy, including measures to protect endangered stocks and a ban on “discards”, the practice of throwing unwanted dead fish back into the sea.


Prof Mike Kaiser, Professor of Marine Conservation Ecology, Bangor University and Non-Executive member of the Board of the Sea Fish Industry Authority (Seafish), said:

“The vote to reform the Common Fisheries Policy is great news, certainly the policy couldn’t really be made any worse. There has been a lot of focus on discarding unwanted fish and yes, that is a major waste and it’s wonderful to hear that it’s being stopped, but it is also a bit of a distraction for two reasons.

“First, the big issue is actually the levels of fishing allowed in the first place – we need to be aiming for the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) so that enough juvenile fish can actually reach adulthood and reproduce to build up the depleted stocks and pleasingly the levels of fishing are being changed across the board.

“Second, even when we bring in banning discarding, how is it going to be regulated? Whilst we know where ships are, we have no idea what they are doing. Regulation is not, therefore, going to be the sole answer. Instead we need to harness the enthusiasm of the fishing industry to engage and maintain fish stocks for their own livelihoods as well as for ecological reasons. The scientific community has long been calling for changes because we have so little data on the number of fish on the quayside, let alone how much goes over the side – we can either send out observers or use quite sophisticated means to estimate the volume of fish being thrown away – but apart from cod and a few others we also have very little data on fishing levels generally. In fact with shellfish, which are a major component of the industry, we don’t even have any formal assessment let alone good data. The fishing industry are willing to collect this data, but they need to be shown how.

“In this current climate of concern over food security the future of our fish stocks is vitally important and discarding perfectly good fish obviously makes no sense. The science is clear, we need sufficient fish reproducing to maintain the populations, but in many ways this whole issue is not so much a scientific issue as a governance one. It takes local knowledge and regional expertise and an ability to react quickly in order to see the great results that real-time closures of fisheries in Scotland can have. Perhaps one of the most significant changes therefore is in the EU taking the first steps to relinquish some of the central bureaucracy and move towards regional management where the best, up-to-date science can be put into effect.”


Prof Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation, University of York, said:

What does the scientific evidence say about the current state of fish stocks across Europe?

“This is summarised from the EU Commission (2011): In the North-East Atlantic 63% of known fish stocks are overfished, 20% of all stocks for which scientific advice is available are in critical condition (outside safe biological limits or at risk of collapse) and for about 64% the state of the stock is unknown due to poor data (in other words, we don’t have a clear idea about the status of two-thirds of the fish stocks we exploit in Europe). For the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, 82% of stocks for which scientific advice is available are overfished.”

What evidence is there that discarding unwanted fish has a big impact?

“Fish are usually discarded from fisheries that use unselective fishing methods, especially bottom trawling. Some perfectly good fish are discarded because the boat doesn’t have a quota for them, or has exceeded its quota. Others are thrown away because they have little or no market value (too small, wrong species). Some are thrown away in a process called high grading, in which perfectly good fish already caught are discarded in favour of later catches that consist of more valuable species or sizes of fish.

“A phased in ban on discarding fish is included in the reform package being considered. It is popular because fishermen don’t like throwing away good fish, the public does not like seeing the waste and scientists want to know better how many fish are being caught and killed (which they don’t know when fish caught are not recorded because they are thrown away at sea).”

Does the scientific community think that stopping discarding will have an impact?

“A discard ban should lead to less waste (of fish and fuel), but will only solve overfishing if fishing effort is also reduced so less fish are killed in the first place.”

Is it enough on its own or will it only have an impact if combined with other reforms?

“A discard ban is not enough on its own to solve overfishing in Europe. Measures to recover fish stocks to optimal levels of productivity (maximum sustainable yield) are also included in the reforms being voted on. If MEPs vote in favour, then fish stock recovery is more likely.”

Are we focusing on the right issues or are there aspects highlighted by scientific evidence that are being ignored?

“There are three key issues that have been neglected in my view: The tendency of Ministers to ignore scientific advice; the destructive tendencies of some fishing methods and the need for marine protected areas to recover fish stocks and habitats.

“On the first point, the reforms suggest that multi-annual plans will do away with horse trading and quota inflation. But last December, at the first test of this principle, ministers voted to abandon the cod recovery plan rather than allow automatic fishing effort reductions warranted by a slow recovery trajectory.

“On the question of destructive fishing methods, like scallop dredging, few people yet realise just how badly they compromise the productivity of European seas.

“On the question of protected areas, there is wording in the reform package to establish them as part of stock recovery, but whether this amendment has been voted in is unclear.”

Scientists have been calling for change for a while – what would need to be done to:

  • lead to stock recovery to a healthy level?

“Here is my wish list: establish a network of marine protected areas that are off limits to fishing across approximately one third of our seas; reduce fishing effort in the rest by approximately half; phase out or greatly constrain the area within which the most destructive fishing methods are used, such as scallop dredging and beam trawling; keep and use all catch and bycatch except fish that have a high survival on return to the sea (e.g. rays); implement the best available technologies to reduce bycatch and collateral environmental damage by fishing (e.g. damage to seabed life); stop fishing in the deep sea (>800m) as stocks and habitats there are too vulnerable and sensitive to sustain it.”

•         return stocks to pre-industrial fishing levels (do we know what level this would be and should that actually be our aim?)

“If we want to continue fishing we must accept that we cannot return stocks to pre-industrial levels. However, marine protected areas off limits to fishing will help stocks recover to much more productive levels and allow habitats to rebuild. Some of these areas may come to resemble pre-industrial conditions after 30 or more years of protection.

“One of the tenets of fisheries management is that reducing population sizes of fish by fishing will boost their productivity. So from a fishing perspective, reducing populations from pre-industrial levels is a good thing. The trouble is, we have gone much too far, reducing many stocks to very unproductive scarcity.”

Are there any rules of thumb that members of the public can follow when considering buying fish that follow good scientific advice?

“This is what I say in my recent book Ocean of Life: How our Seas are Changing:

“The blue Marine Stewardship Council logo is a pretty solid guide to fisheries that are well managed and where the target animal is still reasonably abundant. Try to avoid prawns or scallops and other bottom feeders fished up by dredgers and trawlers, such as plaice, cod and hake. If you want to eat such fish, try to find them line caught: handlines and trolls (hook and line towed from a boat) have less bycatch than longlines. Eat low in the food web, so favour smaller fish like anchovies, herring and sardines over big predators like Chilean seabass, swordfi sh and large tunas (you will be doing yourself a favour as these predators also concentrate more toxins). If you can’t give up tuna, choose pole and line caught animals which have virtually zero bycatch. ‘Dolphin friendly’ versions alone may not be very dolphin friendly, since tuna are often caught with purse seines, walls of net that surround and stress dolphins and snare sharks, turtles and other wildlife. Farm-raised fish and prawns often come at a high environmental cost in destroyed habitat and wild fish turned into feed. Vegetarian fish like tilapia and carp are better than predators like salmon and seabass. Organic is better too, since your fish will have been dosed with fewer chemicals.”

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