On 1 January, the wasteful practice of throwing fish discards overboard became illegal in waters of the European Union. Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks.
But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, because almost all crews can discard fish without anyone knowing. “This is one of the most dramatic changes in EU fisheries policy,” says Peder Andersen, an economist at the University of Copenhagen.
Regulators began to phase in the discard ban, formally known as the Landing Obligation, in 2015. To ease the pain, they started with vessels that didn’t discard much because they catch schools of herring and other single species. Now comes the bigger challenge: fisheries where many species live together, such as those in the North Sea. When vessels drag nets near or along the bottom, they end up with a jumble of species and sizes. Until now, vessels only kept the valuable portion of their catch. The discarding of young fish, which haven’t yet reproduced much, has been a particular impediment to sustainability.
Under the ban, fishing vessels must bring back all regulated species, a significant headache. More time will be spent sorting fish, as even the unwanted ones must be tallied and brought to port. Holds will fill up faster, meaning more trips to sea and higher fuel costs. And unwanted fish will be sold for a fraction of the price of the normal catch, if it can be sold at all. The hope is that the ban will incentivize vessels to adopt more selective fishing gear or strategies.
A second problem for industry is that the ban creates the prospect of “choke species” that threaten to shut down fishing. In a fishery with a mix of species, a vessel might catch the same proportion of species each time it trawls, despite varying quotas for the allowed catch of each. Before the discard ban, this wasn’t a problem: Fishers could keep catching haddock and whiting, for example, even after reaching their cod quota. Following the law, they simply threw away any new cod caught.
Now, vessels will have to stop fishing once they reach their quota for choke species like cod in some places. Haddock or whiting quotas will go unused—a lost economic opportunity. “Choke species are a huge problem,” says Daniel Voces de Onaindi, managing director of Europêche, a lobbying group in Brussels.
“We’re talking about destroying boats, and unemployment.” The discard ban does exempt species, such as Norway lobster, that typically survive after they are returned to the water. And last month, EU fisheries ministers boosted quotas for five species, despite scientific advice to protect these stocks.
Still, case studies from DiscardLess, an EU-funded research project that wraps up this month, suggest the fishing industry could suffer losses on the order of 10% for several years if the ban is enforced.
Over the longer term, the discard ban will boost fish stocks and benefit the overall ecosystem, according to modeling led by Marie Savina-Rolland of the French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea, an oceanographic research center in Lorient. That could eventually translate to higher quotas and profits, says Andersen, who co-led economic research for the DiscardLess project.