Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, the wasteful practice 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.
The ban could also stimulate more research on new fishing gear and tactics to avoid unwanted catches. Researchers have already shown benefits from separator trawls, which have a horizontal panel at the opening. Haddock and whiting tend to swim upward when the trawl approaches. The panel diverts them into an upper net, whereas cod and monkfish are collected by a lower net. Unwanted species can escape through an opening in the net. Equipping fishing gear with light-emitting diodes can also help reduce bycatch, DiscardLess researchers have found, by discouraging some unwanted species from entering trawl nets. But these techniques also lose some of the commercial catch, so industry has not adopted them widely. “It’s rare to get a situation where you can avoid unwanted sizes or species and not pay a penalty with the fish you do want,” says David Reid, a fisheries ecologist at the Marine Institute in Oranmore, Ireland.
More quota trading could also help industry cope. If a vessel or fleet has run out of quota to catch cod in its mixed trawls, for example, it could offer its quota of whiting to a fleet with the opposite problem. Last month, EU fisheries ministers increased pressure on nations to start trading quotas. “It’s basically banging their heads together and saying you must swap quotas for this to work,” says Andrew Clayton, who directs the Pew Charitable Trusts’s campaign to end overfishing in northwest Europe and is based in London.
Few expect all fishing vessels to obey the discard ban. “Put yourself in the boots of a fishermen who can see he will run out of quota for a species. If he does, he would have to tie up for the rest of the year. He might have to sell the boat, or sell the house,” says Barrie Deas, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in York, U.K. “What’s he going to do?”
Scofflaws could jeopardize not just fish stocks, but also data about how they are faring. Researchers, who suggest catch levels to regulators, get their discard data largely from independent observers on just a few boats—less than 1% of the EU fleet. Observed boats are now likely to discard much fewer fish than other vessels, leaving an official undercount of the discard rate and a falsely rosy picture of how heavily stocks are fished, says Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who runs a consultancy called FishFix in Lisbon. “It could bring about a very big, negative change,” Borges says. “I get very worried about European fisheries management.”
Environmentalists want to toughen up enforcement by installing cameras on ships, the practice in New Zealand and a few other places with discard bans. But Voces de Onaindi says this is impractical on some vessels and raises privacy concerns. The lesson from countries where discard bans have succeeded, including Norway and Iceland, Andersen says, is that the gradual introduction of incentives and controls—to develop the economic use of unwanted fish, and create a culture of regulatory compliance—lessens conflict but can take decades to achieve.