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Reducing Discards - How will it Really help?

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ANALYSIS - Late last week the European Commission used its emergency powers to reduce and avoid excessive discarding of haddock in the West of Scotland. But will this really improve fish stocks, asks TheFishSite editor Charlotte Johnston.

The public, industry and politicians have become increasingly aware of discards over the last 18 months, largely thanks to celebrity chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who took a campaign to end discards to the European Union.

Since then European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, has pledged to end the practice of discards.

In West Scotland, the emergency measure introduced will permit the fishermen to land the catches rather than discard fish. It will come into force with an immediate effect for six months initially.

The EU says that incidental catches of haddock have increased due to the recent progress in the recovery of the stock.

Current rules limit the percentage of a given species within the catch, meaning that fishermen would throw/ discard fish overboard even if they had not met their quota.

Ms Damanaki said: "We will act swiftly to avoid unnecessary discards. The decision proves it. The situation in the fishery has changed, and the very rules that were adopted three years ago to protect the stock now threaten its sustainability. Thanks to the emergency powers, we can urgently amend the rules when the new developments require it."

"Public opinion is massively against discards. Right now there are at least seventy anti-discard initiatives around Europe. Either by the fishermen, who are finding ways to fish more selectively; or by European retailers, who are delisting species from their supply whenever stocks are endangered or non-selective fishing techniques are used," said Ms Damanaki, who said that these initiatives would be supported through the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

However, some MPs have questioned whether the EU Commission’s proposal for a ban on the discarding of fish at sea will prove effective.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chair Anne McIntosh commented: "The Commission is right to want to tackle this, but we are concerned that a knee-jerk reaction to the public outcry will do more harm than good. The last thing that we want to see is unwanted fish in the sea becoming unwanted fish in landfill."

Instead, the Committee argues for a more gradual approach built on a sound science base and the local experience of fishermen to find workable solutions to the discard problem that has blighted European fisheries.

Whilst these emergency measures will stop the waste of edible fish, the question remains whether it will do anything to protect fish stocks, despite the Commission's assertion that the emergency measures have been introduced to protect haddock stocks.

In response to this a spokesperson for the European Commission said that if the fishermen are by law obliged to throw away any haddock catches that go beyond 30 per cent of their total catch, then they will need to keep fishing to land their quotas for other fish.

In other words, this would force them to kill a lot more haddock than is needed to carry out the fishery at sustainable (and more than sustainable levels).

"The bottom line is, if the catch composition rules had not been set aside, then the quantities of fish killed would have not been the same. They would have been a lot higher."

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