Discards and the landing obligation explained

The landing obligation – aka discards ban – is in the process of being phased in, fishery by fishery. Here’s a quick overview of what it means and some of the issues involved.

Discards are unwanted fish (bycatch) caught in fishing gear that are subsequently thrown away (discarded) at sea, typically because they have no market value or because legislation forbids their landing and sale. Discarding is widely regarded as a waste of natural resources, disruptive to marine ecosystems and ethically undesirable as most fish don’t survive the process. The UN has estimated the global figure for discards to be around 7 million tonnes.

Discarding has been a huge issue in fishing in recent years, not least due to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign. It is a key element of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which came into effect on 1 January 2014. This legislates for the progressive elimination of discards in EU fisheries through the introduction of a new landing obligation which, as its name suggests, requires skippers to land all commercial (quota) species they catch. In effect, it is a discards ban and is often referred to as such.

The landing obligation is being phased in fishery by fishery: it started with pelagic stocks (see illustration above) on 1 January 2015, followed by demersal stocks on 1 January 2016, with the remainder following between 2017 and 2019.

The new obligation has added impetus to work already being done to reduce unwanted bycatch by making fishing gear more selective. Some selectivity problems can be solved relatively easily. If the unwanted creatures – such as dolphins – are very different from the target species, then a sorting grid can be used. However, it is more difficult when there is a mix of species in the same place such as cod, haddock, whiting, plaice, monkfish and sole, and each species has a different minimum permitted size – no single mesh size can retain all legal fish and release the rest.

Options trialled by gear technologists have included using behavioural differences between species to guide them to different parts of the gear; using large mesh panels to allow unwanted species to escape; inserting “windows” of “square mesh” or other devices at strategic points in the gear; and taking advantage of the different body shapes or sizes between, for example, flat and round fish, fish and langoustine, or fish and sea mammals or turtles.

A scheme in in 2009-10 called Project 50% demonstrates how effective selective gear can be. Through Project 50%, Devon beam trawler crews agreed to try to reduce their discards by an ambitious 50%. Working with local net-makers, the fishermen trialled their own new net designs alongside standard gear configurations. The trials were a resounding success, with average discards reductions of 52%, and the most successful boat achieving a 69% reduction.

As the landing obligation rolls out across the demersal sector in 2016, vessel owners up and down the country are searching for measures to reduce bycatch, such as selective gear. There are plenty of other issues involved in this complex area, including changes to the way quota is managed and the way some skippers operate. And there are also major areas of concern still to be resolved, such as the pressing issue of choke species, which we have written about before. Meanwhile, we as consumers can play our part by eating the historically under-utilised species that in the past would have been discarded because they have no market.

Illustrations courtesy of Seafish.

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