Writer and broadcaster

Discard this common fisheries policy and stop this waste. The Guardian.

It was 14 years ago that I first started writing about the state of our fish stocks, how ludicrous the common fisheries policy (CFP) was, how harmful modern fishing techniques were. Back then, very few people were interested. I’d go into a restaurant and ask the provenance of my tuna or cod and be lucky if I got an answer beyond “our fishmonger”.

Much has changed in a decade and a half. An increasing number of people now know that fish stocks are severely depleted. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight programmes were shown on Channel 4 in January. At the heart of these programmes was the issue of discard. Discard is a handy sanitised word to describe something that defies logic. It is when fishermen are forced to throw fish overboard, either because they don’t have quotas to catch those fish; the fish are below the minimum landing size; they’re not the species the skipper was targeting; or because they need to make room on the boat for more commercially valuable fish, called “high grading”.

But these fish don’t swim away to live another day. Mostly they are dead, so they are completely wasted. This would be immoral enough if we had more than enough fish, but we don’t, so it’s immoral and uneconomic. Or, to give it its scientific term: stupid.

This has been going on for years, and everyone involved in fisheries has known about it. The problem is not small, the world average is 7.3m tonnes discarded, which equates to 8% of total recorded catch. But that’s including countries not bound by the CFP. The discard in the EU is much higher, in some fisheries up to 70%.

The CFP was formally created in 1983, stemming from the common agricultural policy of the early 1970s, but was never launched with the aim of protecting fish stocks, rather, to prevent member countries fighting over whose water was being fished. So it’s fundamentally flawed, because it’s all topsy turvy. It morphed once, I think it should again, let’s have the fish protection policy!

When Fearnley-Whittingstall showed thousands of dead fish being thrown away on telly, and people saw how insane it was, suddenly everything gained momentum: more than 650,000 people have signed a letter to “stop this waste”, addressed to Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries commissioner. On 15 December 2010 she addressed the fisheries council in a speech called Fishing Opportunities 2011, “to ensure a profitable fishing sector that can rely on healthy stocks”. She didn’t mention discards. On Tuesday it was top of the agenda: she proposed a discard ban as part of the CFP reform.

But no one seems to know how to do this. Damanaki talked of a gradual approach, with the list of species covered being “enlarged year by year”. This seems set up to cause friction between fisheries. There was also talk about making the by-product fish part of the quota. But this will only work if the fisherman can make a living from it, otherwise what is to stop him simply doing as before and “slipping” the fish he doesn’t want overboard? In a memo that came out of Brussels in March 2007, it said “it is important that the individual vessels do not receive the income from any such sales of by-catch”. Damanaki talked of needing CCTVs and inspectors, but both are open to abuse.

There are some good projects already under way, such as the UK’s own 50% project, where a local fishery in Devon aimed to reduce discard by 50% – it succeeded. This was an individualistic approach where the fishermen were listened to – they even designed their own new nets. As one fisherman said: “It was the first time that I’ve known a government organisation to work with the local fisherman and ask us how we could help.”

But this is not how the CFP works. It doesn’t listen, it dictates.