Fish stocks 'at risk' from illegal disgarding, Lords warn
Unwanted fish may still be getting illegally dumped in the sea six months after EU laws banning the practice came into force, a House of Lords committee has warned.
The House of Lords sub-Committee on EU Energy and Environment found that neither the UK nor Scottish governments have any idea to what extent fishing vessels were complying with the EU fisheries landing obligation, a law that should see all fish caught taken ashore and counted as part of annual fishing quotas.
The landing obligation was introduced across European waters in order to protect stocks from overfishing. It was phased in for UK vessels in January.
But the ban on discarding fish at sea “seems to have had little impact” since it was introduced, the Lords’ committee reports, suggesting that the practice is still on-going across the industry and leading to fears over the environmental impact of continued unsustainable fishing.
The Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, told the committee: “I cannot say, hand on heart, that [the landing obligation] is being fully complied with.”
The committee has called on the UK Government and devolved administrations to introduce a series of “robust measures” to better monitor offshore practices and also to make it easier for fishermen to swap quotas to avoid hitting their limits too early in the season.
In February the committee published a report raising questions about the effect the landing obligation could have on both fishermen and stocks. That report found that if the rules were followed there would be a high risk of “chokes” forcing crews to give up early in the season.
“Chokes” occur when a vessel runs out of quota on one type of fish stock and then, even though they still have quota for other stocks, cannot continue in mixed fish areas because of the risk of exceeding the quota unintentionally.
However, in the first six months of the rule being in place there has been no reports of chokes forcing fishers to quit, a finding the committee called “surprising”.
In Scotland, only one instance of non-compliance with the law was found. When asked to what extent they thought the landing obligation was being complied with, Marine Scotland said: “We are unable to answer this question as we could only provide an estimate based on the cases of non-compliance identified and anything beyond that would be guesswork.”
Additionally, the quantity of small fish being landed that would previously have been discarded is much lower than expected, suggesting continued dumping of the less profitable fish.
Fishing industry bodies claim this was caused by changing practices and better equipment. But the committee warned that unless better monitoring of the industry is introduced, then there will be no way to know how closely the rules are being followed or what impact over-fishing continues to have on the environment.
The report suggests the use of remote electronic monitoring systems on larger fleets as one potential solution.
Lord Teverson, chair of the committee, said: “Good progress has been made in recent years to improve the health of fish stocks in EU waters. But now it seems that fishing Ministers are once again tempted to make decisions based on short-term economic benefits rather than long-term sustainability.
“Unless the discard ban is properly implemented and enforced the UK’s fishing industry could in the future find itself with nothing left to fish.”
Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said: “The simple truth about the landings obligation is that it is a set of totally contradictory rules imposed by the EU which utterly fails to align fishing opportunity with the distribution of stocks.
“This has been pointed out by the industry to the European Commission and the UK and Scottish governments ad nauseam and they understand the predicament of fishermen.
“It will be up to those governments post-Brexit to devise a system of practicable regulations that achieve the objective of ending discards without tying the industry up in knots and the fishing fleet at the quayside.”