Agreement by EU fishery ministers that the discarding of edible fish under the quota system should be phased out over a number of years has been hailed as an Irish success. It represents a small advance, in view of strong resistance from Spain, Portugal and France. But it falls short of what is needed and the European Parliament may be reluctant to endorse it.
For years, EU fishery ministers ignored scientific advice in allocating national catch quotas with the result that most fish stocks are under pressure or are critically endangered. An unintended consequence of this quota system has been that fish that exceed catch quotas or for which no quotas were granted are discarded. In addition, some factory boats pulp and discard less valuable fish when larger members of the same species are caught. Discards amount to between 25 and 50 per cent in some areas.
Impetus for reform has come from a public that is appalled by the waste involved and from the European Commission. Last month, the European Parliament voted for a total ban on discards. Change is fiercely resisted by some national fishery interests and, once again, compromise has been the outcome.
Phasing out the practice of discards is a necessary first step in reforming the Common Fisheries Policy. In future, scientific advice on sustainable stocks will have to be acted upon by ministers. Governments will have to rigorously police actual landings. Fishing methods will have to change, not only in terms of mesh sizes but in the use of equipment that damages the sea bed and important nursery areas.
Up to now, the Common Fisheries Policy has resulted in an unofficial free-for-all with national fleets grabbing what they can, particularly from within the waters of other member states.
Demands for change have been largely ignored as fishery ministers responded to national pressures. The best hope for a sustainable industry may lie in the growing powers of the European Parliament.