The shadow of discards

Hugh’s Fish Fight motivated multitudes to demand the reform of EU fishing policies and end discards. But the upcoming changes could lead to a crisis for Peterhead fishermen as they struggle to adapt.

Last Sunday, Hugh’s Fish Fight returned to Channel 4 for a final instalment, dubbed “Hugh’s Last Stand”. Its main focus is an assessment of the impact of his campaign over the past few years, which rallied hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to drive Brussels to reform EU fishing policies.

The programme – still available here – kicked off with a trip aboard the Budding Rose, a pair trawler in the North Sea skippered by Peter Bruce, who we met last week along with his pair trawling partner Brian Buchan, skipper of the Lapwing.

The background to the story is that Peter, who confesses that he’s always been “political”, took issue with what he thought was Fish Fight’s unfair coverage of the fishing industry. “Two years ago I set up the ‘Real Fish Fight’ to counter the bad publicity, to show that we fish sustainably, and to encourage consumers to eat locally caught fish to keep our coastal communities going,” he says. He also visits schools to pass on the same message. He wanted Hugh to see what he does for himself, so he invited him along for a trip – and Hugh took him up on it.

It wasn’t an easy trip: the weather around the Shetlands was truly awful for the 36 hours Hugh and his crew were aboard the two boats, as the picture above shows. “But they handled it exceptionally well,” says Peter, with admiration. The result was some terrific footage of the boats at sea and an acknowledgement by Hugh of the work Peter and fishermen like him have done to reduce discards and fish sustainability, which have seen really encouraging recovery of stocks.

The programme particularly focused on a pilot scheme that ensures all cod are landed, and none discarded. Seven CCTV cameras on board the Budding Rose record all handling of fish, ensuring accurate documentation – rather like constantly having an official observer on board.

Fishermen participating in the pilot were incentivised by an additional quota allowance, although that has reduced over time. The scheme is effectively a trial of the upcoming EU policy reforms, which aim to end discards by requiring fishermen to land whatever they catch. The idea is that this places the fishermen under economic pressure to catch the right thing: if they keep filling their holds with unsaleable fish, they’ll soon go out of business. All of which has helped to drive changes to fishing gear, like that now used on the Budding Rose.

North Sea haddock, saithe and several herring stocks are all now MSC certified as sustainable.

“The best answer to the problem of unwanted bycatch is selectivity,” says Carl O’Brien, Defra Chief Fisheries Science Adviser at Cefas, the expert marine science agency that advises the EU and UK government, among many others. “If fishermen adopt more selective fishing gear they can dramatically reduce the amount of undersized or unwanted species they catch. In 2009 we teamed up with Devon beam trawlermen to see if we could reduce the amount of juvenile fish discarded. The result was an overall reduction of 52 per cent.”

However, even with the best possible gear, there is always going to be some bycatch. “It’s unavoidable,” says O’Brien. And that leads to a worrying problem. Perversely, the increasing abundance of certain species could make fishing incredibly difficult when the discards ban kicks in, particularly for mixed fisheries like the one Peter and Bruce operate in.

In their very first trip of the year, Peter and Bruce caught 200 boxes of saithe, which was their entire annual quota – a good example of the issue of so-called “choke” species. “This is a potentially disastrous situation whereby a lack of quota for one particular species may prevent you from risking going to sea and fishing in case you catch that species,” says Tom Pickerell, Technical Director at Seafish, a fishing industry body set up the government. “If this were to happen, what would you do? You can’t throw it back and now you will need to land it (despite the fact you don’t have sufficient quota to cover these landings). I guess you could eat it but this isn’t a long-term solution. The most infuriating aspect of this situation is that you could have plenty of quota for other species.”

A study commissioned by Seafish on the effect of this landing obligation on the Irish Sea Nephrops (or langoustine) trawl fleet found that the key choke species was whiting, which would allow only 10 fishing days at estimated average discard rates before boats would have to tie up. That’s a pretty scary statistic. There are various potential ways to mitigate this, but nobody really knows how they might be implemented, despite the fact that the rule changes will start to take effect from January next year.

One obvious answer is for boats to lease more quota, but you don’t have to be the Wolf of Wall Street to work out that prices for the rare, in demand quotas will go through the roof – by more than five times, according to the report. Brian Buchan says that he’s already spending £350,000 a year on quota, which is 20% of the gross of his boat. That’s why Lapwing, pictured below, is probably the oldest boat fishing the North Sea, he says – he can’t afford to invest in a new one. Swapping quota and various concessions might alleviate the problem, but it’s small wonder that Peter was keen to say on Fish Fight that fishermen need more quota – not for his target catch, but for the bycatch. Both saithe and hake are a particular problem, because for historical reasons Scottish boats have little quota – yet they can be so plentiful it can be hard to avoid catching them.

Meanwhile, more work is being done to improve gear selectivity, and to allow that new gear to be used – in some cases, it might not be technically legal. Another major change with the EU policy changes is that it will allow governments to implement changes on a regional level. “All fishermen won’t be obliged to fish in the same way any more,” says Carl at Cefas. “They will be able to choose the fishing gear relevant to the environment they’re working in. It’s a far more effective approach.” Tom adds that Seafish is “building an easily accessible database where all the information generated to date on gear selectivity is available and hopefully informative.”

And consumers can help play their part too. “A big reason why much of the bycatch has historically been discarded is because there is no market value for it,” says Carl O’Brien at Cefas. “Until we as consumers embrace other varieties of fish, that won’t change. Our shores are full of so many fantastic varieties of fish, which are just as good as haddock and cod, if not better. I say: let’s start being a little more experimental.”

Pictures by Channel 4 and Seafish. Video by Beard Askew Productions, courtesy of Scottish Whitefish Producers Association.

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