Tackling wasteful 'discard' practice vital to reform of EU fisheries policy


SEVERAL YEARS ago some well-known British chefs and food writers started campaigns to highlight one of the more wasteful practices that is encouraged by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy – discarding fish that are not part of a vessel’s authorised quota or permitted percentage of “bycatch” in the net.

EU commissioner for maritime affairs Maria Damanaki took up the cause, seeking an immediate discard ban. “Pandering to the public relations campaigns of celebrity chefs” was how Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation chief executive Seán O’Donoghue described the move.

Forcing vessels to land species caught outside quotas without looking at ways of avoiding netting the species at all was simply “transferring dumping on sea to land”, he said.

Mindful of this, Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney argued successfully for a phased approach – with a complete ban by 2018. Ironically, even as he travelled home from all-night negotiations, an Irish vessel was being detained off the southeast coast for refusing to dump fish caught outside quota.

Implementing a discard ban will prove challenging, but Marine Institute director of fisheries ecosystems advisory services Dr Paul Connolly is optimistic.

“An enormous amount of work has been done on technical measures, but no fisherman can determine what exactly he will land in his net, particularly in mixed fisheries,” he said.

“That said, the Republic was the first EU member state to produce a discard atlas, showing the level here. We haven’t had that sort of information from France or Spain. Landing all your catch has to be good in the long term, as skippers simply won’t catch what they can’t bring in.”

There is a long-held perception in the industry here that the heavyweight sections of national fleets – such as the Killybegs mackerel supertrawlers – and the member states with greater lobbying clout, such as the Netherlands, France and Spain, are not subject to the same level of control.

Earlier this year, State Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) officer Kevin Flannery submitted a report to his organisation documenting the activity of factory vessels working off the Irish coast. Flannery analysed data recorded by the German government’s vessel- monitoring system to show the activities of German-registered Dutch factory ships.

Four Dutch firms own or control 30 European factory ships registered in various member states, catching pelagic, or near-surface-swimming, fish, such as mackerel, herring, blue whiting and horse mackerel. The Dutch are the largest buyers of high-protein pelagic fish next to China.

Flannery estimated each of the all-weather factory ships can process at least 200 tonnes a day, “high grading” to select the largest and dumping or mincing the rest. He calculated that the total catch during a 150-day period amounted to some 1,680,000 tonnes of fish.

These vessels “do not enter Irish ports and are not subjected to any audits of inspections from the SFPA”, he said.

The SFPA has a large staff to inspect landings ashore, while the Naval Service does so at sea. The Naval Service says it inspects all nationalities, including the freezer ships, and that its officers use dry suits that allow them to work in the sub-zero temperatures of heaving factory holds.

A drop in detentions, from 25 in 2008 to 12 last year, reflects the fact that boardings at sea are having a deterrent effect, says the Naval Service.

Flannery believes that placing EU observers on Dutch factory vessels is essential if Damanaki is serious about her discard ban.

Meanwhile, in north Mayo, where inshore fishermen have developed a low-volume but high-quality passive fishery for line-caught mackerel, along with crab and lobster fishing, the activities of Irish factory vessels, which damage near-shore pots, is causing most concern.

Such difficulties could be avoided with enlightened coastal zone management, and an ecosystem approach to fisheries control that moves beyond the narrow confines of quotas.

“A healthy ecosystem will ensure healthy stocks,” Connolly believes.

“But if we are to manage the ocean space, rather than just managing cod in the Irish Sea, the main stakeholders – as in fishermen – have to believe they are an integral part of that.”