A raft of ideas to help fishing fleets ditch discarding
What do you do with unwanted catch - avoid it, discard it or land it? Discarding it is now banned under the EU's common fisheries policy. Two EU-funded projects explored options and strategies in a bid to support industry with this move towards greater sustainability such as technology enabling vessels to fish more selectively.
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Updated on 28 June 2019
There is a limit to the quantities of fish that can be harvested without placing entire species at risk across vast areas. And yet, addressing the challenge of overfishing is not just a matter of restricting the amount that fishers are permitted to land. It is also a question of ensuring that they actually land their entire haul. Many discard unwanted catch that would otherwise count against their quotas.
In many cases, the discarded catch does not survive and it is not uncommon for the share that goes overboard to actually exceed the quantity of fish that is brought ashore. The landing obligation, which has applied across the EU since January 2019, was introduced to eliminate this widespread practice.
Ultimately, fishermen themselves stand to benefit from fisheries being managed more sustainably, say the coordinators of the EU-funded projects DISCARDLESS and MINOUW. However, they add, a fully enforced ban on discarding is widely expected to generate losses for the industry in the short term.
Both projects were launched in March 2015 to facilitate the transition. To do so, they looked into ways of avoiding unwanted catch as far as possible and deriving value from the remainder, engaging with fishers throughout the process.
We have brought fishermen to the table and secured their help in devising and testing technological solutions, says MINOUW coordinator Francesc Maynou of the Spanish National Research Councils Marine Science Institute. Fisheries management has primarily been a top-down process so far, but we are trying to change this paradigm.
DISCARDLESS coordinator Clara Ulrich of the Technical University of Denmark adds: The reason why we have discards is actually rather simple, although addressing the issue is far more complicated. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. All fishers face their very own set of difficulties, depending on their boats and gear, their location and their fishing rights.
Waste not, want not
So why do we have discards? Fish may be rejected because they are too small, have little commercial value, or because the fisher doesnt have the necessary rights, Ulrich explains.
Maynou underlines the importance of letting fish stocks recover. Discarding is a waste of resources, both from the economic and the ecological point of view, and its also a waste of future production, he says. The EU is aligning with other strategic policy initiatives around the world to progress towards whats referred to as clean fishing, which means producing the maximum of fish with the minimum of waste or pollution.
Ulrich notes that the benefits to fishers accrue over time, but not immediately. If you fish cleaner, you wont go beyond the maximum sustainable limit, and then de facto the stocks will recover and grow, and fishers will catch more and bigger fish, which will bring in more money, she says. But before you reach this point, fishing more selectively inevitably means that you will take less of what you might otherwise have sold.
Technologies and methods designed to minimise unwanted catch have been around for a very long time, she explains, but there simply was no incentive to use them. A large part of our activity involved getting that knowledge updated and known and shared and used, UIrich notes.
Plenty more fish in the sea?
Discarding may no longer be allowed, but there are other ways to deal with unwanted catch. DISCARDLESS and MINOUW highlighted possibilities to put them to good use, in the form of products as varied as surimi, fish leather and mineral supplements.
While both projects conducted detailed case studies to address similar problems, they focused on different settings, Maynou points out. DISCARDLESS covered a wide variety of fisheries in European waters, whereas MINOUW primarily studied the Mediterranean context.
Many Atlantic harbours have large processing plants to produce goods such as fish meal and fish oil, Maynou points out, adding that the production of unwanted catches in the Mediterranean is very low and does not justify this type of investment.
Instead, we have proposed small-scale micro-plants that can be used to process unwanted catches for niche markets, such as the production of collagen, Maynou reports.
While there are various ways to potentially turn unwanted catch into welcome cash, Ulrich underlines the need for individual harbours and countries to focus on the options best suited to their situation particularly in terms of the fish species that make up their unwanted catch, which will differ for each.
Turning the tide
Both projects ended in February 2019, having shared know-how, outlined possibilities and helped to generate momentum for change. The discards ban was needed and is expected to translate into larger, more profitable catches, Maynou and Ulrich note, although making it work will require far more than selective gear and methods.
The practice of discarding derives to a large extent from the way fishing rights are shared between countries, harbours and individuals, says Ulrich. A fresh look at the political and administrative aspects would therefore also be helpful.
And given the financial implications in the short term, the ban is unlikely to be fully successful unless funds are made available to tide fishers over, according to Maynou.
These are small companies, he explains. They dont have the financial muscle needed to try new things. Nor do they have the capacity to deal with complex procedures, Maynou adds, underlining the need to avoid red tape in providing financial support.
Despite the difficulties, there is a clear sense that change is in the air, says Ulrich. In the countries were DISCARDLESS was actively engaged, fishers have started to bring more discard fish ashore, and a number of large harbours are developing the infrastructure they need to store and process unwanted catch that fishers would not previously have landed, she notes. Some of the technological solutions proposed by MINOUW have become mandatory in Italy and Spain, where they have been transposed into national law, Maynou reports.
The steps taken by the EU and its member countries are part of a much wider effort, Ulrich emphasises. Fishery science relative to discarding is connected internationally, feeding into discussions going on around the world, she concludes. Countries deciding to tackle the issue dont have to start from scratch.