Fishermen should be allowed to continue discarding edible fish at sea, despite public pressure to stop the wasteful practice, a group of MPs has urged.
The proposal, by a parliamentary select committee, is a blow to environmental campaigners who have long argued against the practice.
A high-profile public campaign led by the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has called an end to the discarding of fish. Fleets sometimes throw fish back, usually dead, because they have exceeded their quota or have inadvertently caught less valuable species.
Partly in response to the campaign, the European commission has proposed a phased-in ban on discards, which the UK government has backed in Brussels.
But the environment and rural affairs committee called in a report published on Friday for the practice to be allowed to continue until 2020 at least.
The MPs said it had not been proved how many fish died after being discarded and called for more research. They cast doubt on whether it was possible to end discards.
“We are concerned that, by deciding to implement a discard ban swiftly and without full engagement with stakeholders, the commission risks creating a scheme that will be unworkable, or worse, will merely shift unwanted fish in the sea to unwanted fish on land,” the committee said.
Anne McIntosh, who chairs the committee, said: “Everyone is appalled by revelations about the levels of discarding. We heard first-hand from fishermen in Hastings how frustrating it is for them to have to throw back perfectly good cod into the sea. The commission is right to want to tackle this, but we are concerned that a kneejerk reaction to the public outcry will do more harm than good. The last thing that we want to see is unwanted fish in the sea becoming unwanted fish in landfill.”
Some campaigners said this stance would simply result in greater waste of fish.
Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace UK, said the MPs’ stance would lead to further and unnecessary depletion of already dwindling fish stocks. She said: “We cannot accept another decade of discarded fish and devastated fish stocks, and [fisheries minister] Richard Benyon can’t afford to be timid on this issue â€“ it’s now or never.
“Discarding is a perverse consequence of a broken policy that must be addressed in the context of wider radical reforms to the common fisheries policy. There’s a painful lack of urgency in what the committee is saying â€“ a radical solution in 10 years’ time isn’t radical and, by then, it won’t be a solution.
“We would like to see European leaders demonstrate that they believe their own rhetoric and have the courage to take the necessary steps to reduce over-fishing and support the small-scale, sustainable fishing sector before it’s too late.”
WWF-UK said discarding should be allowed to continue. Giles Barlett, fisheries policy officer at the group, said: “There should not be an outright ban. We would like to see plans with measurable reductions in discards and strategies to achieve this. We are saying you should still be allowed to discard fish. We don’t expect edible fish to be discarded.”
However, research shows that edible fish are frequently discarded under the current rules. Discarding results in as much as two-thirds of the fish caught being thrown back in the water, with about 1m tonnes estimated to be thrown back each year in the North Sea alone.
Discarding is a consequence of the strict quotas in the EU under the common fisheries policy on the amount of fish that boats may land. When fishermen exceed their quota, or catch species of fish for which they do not have a quota, they must discard the excess.
But many fishermen, particularly companies with large-scale industrial fishing vessels, would like to retain the practice, because it enables them to throw away lower value fish and keep the most valuable in order to maximise their profits.
Maria Damanaki, EU fisheries chief, vowed last year to make sweeping reforms to the common fisheries policy that would involve phasing out discards altogether so fishermen would have to land all their catch. To assist this, the EU would encourage fishermen to use more selective fishing gear; would try to develop new markets for less valued fish species; and would seek to find alternative uses for unwanted species, such as fish meal for fish farms. Fleets would receive compensation for loss of earnings.
Damanaki said the reforms were needed to ensure the long-term survival of the EU’s fish stocks, which are rapidly dwindling after decades in which member states have fought each other to gain the right to fish more, putting more pressure on stocks than they can bear and defying scientific advice to cut catches in order to allow key species, such as cod, to recover.
Many retailers and food processors support ending discards, but the reform plans have run into trouble, as much of the fishing lobby and some governments with big fishing industries want to water down or delay measures such as the proposed ban on discards.
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