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Trawlers, like this boat in the English Channel, often catch unwanted species. They are no longer allowed to discard them at sea.

Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Researchers say Europe’s ban on throwing unwanted fish overboard is backfiring

Two years ago, a law banning the wasteful practice of tossing unwanted fish overboard came fully into effect in European waters. But a study reveals the law, intended to reduce overfishing, has led to the opposite: To allay industry concerns, regulators have significantly increased fishing quotas, while providing ever more exemptions that make the policy even more difficult to enforce.

The findings show “how the good intentions of the reformed common fisheries policy of Europe were undermined,” says Rainer Froese, a fisheries scientist with GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, who was not involved in the study.

The European Parliament approved the discard ban in 2013 after a campaign by celebrity chefs and environmental groups who were outraged by the practice of discarding fish. Sometimes lower value species such as plaice were chucked back into the water—usually dying—because captains wanted to save room in their holds for more profitable catch like sole. Regulators also required them to discard immature fish, even though the fish were unlikely to survive and reproduce.

By requiring ships to bring the entire catch back to port, unwanted or not, lawmakers meant to encourage selective fishing. Captains could avoid places or seasons when undesired species congregate, or could use modified fishing gear that captures fewer unwanted fish. But mastering these tactics and installing new gear takes time, so fisheries officials offered a handout to industry by increasing the quota of fish that vessels could bring back to port. Because unmarketable fish had to be kept on board, the logic went, captains could bring back more fish in total and still have the same amount of fish to sell.

But discarding apparently continues in many fisheries, in violation of the ban, according to reports by the European Commission and European Fisheries Control Agency. “The fact that there’s still discarding going on over the horizon is a big risk,” says Andrew Clayton of Pew Charitable Trusts, which advocates to end overfishing in northwest Europe. Clayton and others see a threat to sustainability, because if illegal discards are continuing and vessels are bringing back more to sell in port—thanks to increased quotas—then too many fish are being killed.

Lisa Borges, a fisheries biologist who works as an independent consultant in Portugal, set out to document the rise in quotas since 2015, when regulators began to phase in the discard ban. Because fish populations fluctuate naturally, Borges couldn’t compare the quotas from year to year by tonnage. She looked instead at how the quotas compared with the scientific advice given to ministers for ensuring sustainable fishing. It’s not a simple analysis, because the scientists focus on biological populations, which often cross regulatory borders, and fisheries officials divvy up the quotas across regions and fleets.

After sorting through the complexities, Borges reported last month in ICES Journal of Marine Science that each year since 2015, quotas were on average 36% higher than the scientific advice, whereas previously the quotas were just 30% higher than what scientists wanted. Quota inflation in 2019 and 2020 was even higher—43% and 50%—as the discard ban was expanded to include fisheries that trawl indiscriminately to catch a mixture of bottom-dwelling species. For these fisheries, in which boats would presumably be landing many unmarketable fish, the average quota was 60% higher than advice. “You’ve opened a door for a lot of fishing that wasn’t allowed before. And that is the big danger,” Borges says. It may take several years before the effect on most stocks becomes apparent, she notes.

Fisheries also get exemptions to the landing obligation. For example, vessels are allowed to discard 5% of their catch if it’s difficult to avoid unwanted fish. In practice, exemptions make the discard regulations much harder to enforce. A crew might claim that they were discarding fish under their exemptions whenever fisheries inspectors arrive. Other exemptions are given for species that tend to survive when tossed back into the ocean, such as sharks and rays. Borges found that the number of exemptions has been continually rising since 2015. “It’s done to undermine the system, and I didn’t realize it was this bad.”

Daniel Voces de Onaíndi, managing director of Europêche, a trade group, says his organization predicted the discard ban would lead to “huge economic losses,” but he’s pleased that the quota increases have prevented that harm. “I think the governments were quite pragmatic,” he says. As for violations of the ban, he says only 5% of inspections result in an infringement. Borges and others say inspectors need to step up their monitoring by, for example, putting video cameras on boats.

Clayton says the picture isn’t entirely gloomy: The largest, most commercially important stocks like herring and mackerel have solid data to back scientific advice on the maximum sustainable yield. For those stocks, EU ministers have more or less set catch limits in line with scientific advice. According to the European Commission, 99% of landings by tonnage comes from sustainably managed stocks. The problem is with the stocks, such as cod in the Irish Sea, that lack comprehensive scientific data. These stocks, which are often in a depleted state, are important for ecosystems.

Overall, about 40% of quotas continue to exceed the levels in scientific advice, which means the European Union missed its goal to end overfishing by 2020. Experts say the discard ban, formally called the landing obligation, is hardly helping. “All available evidence suggests that the existing landing obligation has achieved the exact opposite of what was aimed for,” Froese says. “If those in charge just subvert it, pervert it, then it cannot work.”