Saturday, 21 May 2011

Fish Discards

Last week I spoke in the parliamentary debate on fish discards. I feel strongly that the way we kill fish unnecessarily and throw them back, dead into the sea on such an industrial scale is an absolute scandal and it has continued for far too long.

The environmental consequences of the Common Fisheries Policy have been recognised for more than twenty years. Around 22 percent of the fish discarded are fish which are caught but for which there is no quota and the remaining 24 percent are fish which are undersize. It’s time the practice stopped and if we need to break up the CFP to achieve that, then so be it.

The truth is that most successful policy innovation in recent years has taken place where national governments have been free to experiment with new ideas and new approaches. Norway has found a way of dealing with the problem of discards caused by fish that are caught over quota by allowing fishermen to land them but paying them only a fraction of the market price. Scotland has had success with “real time closures” where areas are closed to fishing when there is a problem with excessive by-catch. This creates an incentive for the industry to use netting gear which reduces the number of fish caught for which there is no market. Devon fishermen have been involved in another successful project which brought scientists and fishermen together to find ways of improving fishing practices in a way which has reduced fish discards by over 50 percent.

How do we expand ideas which have worked? The structure of the European Union does not really lend itself to such an evidence based approach. Policy making is frequently reduced to a mere negotiation. We need to make the CFP more flexible and that is why I am attracted to the idea of breaking up the current structure and putting in place a regionalised management system. You could retain a common objective: to protect the eco-system and have sustainable fishing. But the way you would deliver that common objective would respond to the local realities and there would be room to try new approaches.

It is not all the fault of the EU. Over half of the fish that are discarded are fish for which there is currently no market. One of the most important outcomes from Channel 4’s recent Fish Fight series was to create demand for other fish species. I recently visited Falfish, a fish processor in Redruth, who reported a significant increase in demand for Pouting which, while far smaller, has a similar texture to cod. Creating a market for currently unfashionable fish is an area where we all have a role to play. Consumers should be more adventurous and the industry should do more to promote the values of these lesser known fish species.