Brussels responded with uncharacteristic speed to the chef’s campaign to ban fish discards, but how will the new system work, asks Richard Ford

When Maria Damanaki, EU commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, pledged her support for a discards ban last Tuesday, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall must have cracked open the elderflower Champagne over a krill canapé or two.

Banning discards, which Damanaki herself described as “unethical, a waste of natural resources and a waste of fishermen’s effort”, was a key objective of the Fish Fight campaign launched by the chef in January.

Following Damanaki’s announcement, fish-eating consumers can now sleep easy in the knowledge that the problem is being dealt with.

But for fishermen, processors and retail buyers, the journey has only just begun. Fish discards have been allowed under the current Common Fisheries Policy, which remains in place until at least 2013, in order for fleets to stay within quota. So exactly how will a ban be implemented and policed? And who will be left to pick up the tab?

Damanaki, to her credit, appreciates the fishing industry is focused on the practicalities of eliminating discards. “I am convinced that we have to start thinking outside of the box,” she said.

There were a number of options, she added, ranging from an ‘effort system’, which would probably focus on number of days at sea, to a more complicated ‘catch quota’ system whereby all catch would be landed but catches would be counted against quotas, and also against bycatch quotas.

Something that Fearnley-Whittingstall arguably did not make enough of in his Channel 4 mini-series, is that the UK is already leading the charge in Europe in exploring ways to minimise the amount of fish that has to be discarded at sea.

Last year, Defra piloted a catch quota system in the North Sea for cod involving 23 fishing vessels. Defra claims discards have been reduced “significantly” as a result and plans to extend the scheme this year to cover more North Sea cod and also potentially to include South West sole, and possibly haddock, whiting and plaice.

The findings from Defra’s Project 50%, a scheme that has been running in the South West since 2009 to improve the selectivity of fishing gear on boats in the beam trawl fishery, are also likely to prove useful to those now assessing how to implement the ban especially as it reduced fish discards by 56%.

For now, though, a ban at fisheries level remains very much at the concept stage, and processors are seemingly reluctant to get involved in the technical aspects at that level. “It is for policy makers, scientists and fishermen to explore the potential means, timescales and perhaps the possible alternatives to a total ban,” says Leendert den Hollander, chief executive of Young’s Seafood Ltd.

However, what processors and retailers can do and are already doing to an extent is prising open the market for fish that is currently discarded because there is no market for it. “Hugh and Jamie are right, we need to educate people to eat more varieties of fish and ensure that the natural mix of fish from our productive seas are all sustainably harvested to maximise their contribution to our diets,” says Nigel Edwards, technical director at fish supplier Seachill.

An example of this is processors’ work with retailers to introduce under-utilised species such as dab.

Effective policing
These efforts by processors will certainly help to draw money into the supply chain, which will be vitally needed. It is not only the ban itself that threatens to add cost into the retail fish supply chain. The implementation of an effective ban would, of course, depend on effective policing, which in turn will cost money.

Damanaki highlighted CCTV or using observers on board vessels above a certain length as two alternative means of ensuring consistency of implementation across the EU, but she failed to mention either the cost or who would pay.

As with most things in Europe, there is no straightforward answer to either of these questions. The closest experts can get towards predicting the impact is to outline how fishing behaviour might be affected.

Hazel Curtis, chief economist at Seafish, warns that if a ‘land everything you catch’ approach were implemented, it would probably result in fishermen spending fewer days at sea as they would fill their hold more quickly, and this would reduce their fuel costs.

However, if a higher proportion of their catch were unsaleable as a result of such a policy (because it was under-size or a non-utilised species) they could see a decrease in net profit.

And while any impact on retail prices is hard to read, a ban could potentially cause a positive shift in the pricing structure of the entire UK market, she says. If the ban is successful and European waters become a beacon of sustainability “people might say ‘we now prefer European fish to Icelandic fish so we’ll pay more for it’.”

Cod futures
The uncertainty over the economic impact means it is crucial a ban is phased in over a reasonable period of time to mitigate any adverse effects on fishermen. “If tomorrow, you said to them ‘you have to bring to shore everything you catch, it just wouldn’t be feasible,” says Curtis.

Processors understand that change needs to happen and that, in the long term, it will be financially worthwhile but they are nervous as to how it will be funded. “Short-term losses in catches will be compensated by better long-term catches. The problem is how to finance the change,” says Edwards. The answer? One of the more interesting ideas, he says, is to create a futures market for cod.

What is clear is that the environmental and economic costs of inaction for the European fishing industry are huge, something that Damanaki herself pointed out last week. “If we continue with our policy, then discarding will erode the economic basis of our fishermen and our coastal regions will be eroded. Then fishermen and their families will pay the bill.”

And, says den Hollander, there is also a significant reputational risk involved. “The framework that has resulted in the widespread practice of discarding has led to the legitimacy of the whole industry being called into question and now action must be taken.”

If action against discards is not taken, warns Damanaki, “the consumers will turn away from fish, because, sooner or later, it will receive a negative image of waste of our natural resources”.

Den Hollander is reluctant to say whether he believes consumers would be happy to pay more for their fish if it meant an end to discards, and in any event, he sees the question as academic. “Actually, consumers are already affected because of the inefficiencies caused to the fishing fleet by the current requirement to waste effort through discarding fish at sea.”

Consumers with a little nudge from Hugh have laid down the gauntlet, he adds. “Ultimately, it is the consumers who are demanding an end to discards and now it is up to the industry, policymakers and scientists to respond and achieve this change.”

Discards ban timeline
11 January 2011 Hugh’s Fish Fight airs on Channel Four highlighting the scandalous level of fish discards in EU waters
1 March 2011 Maria Damanaki addresses MEPs and fisheries ministers on banning discards
3 May 2011 Damanaki and fishing industry stakeholders to discuss a possible discard ban and its consequences 
Summer 2011 Common Fisheries Policy reform proposals (to include the discard ban) to be unveiled
2013 Earliest date by which CFP proposals will be adopted