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A group of European Union member states are planning to thwart key reforms aimed at conserving dwindling fish stocks
The prospects of banning the wasteful practice of discarding edible fish at sea may be extinguished within the next few days, as a group of European Union member states are planning to thwart key reforms aimed at conserving dwindling fish stocks.
Campaigners, including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have been calling for a ban on discards – the practice by which as many as two thirds of healthy fish caught by fleets are thrown back into the sea, dead – for more than a year. In his series, Hugh’s Fish Fight, he pointed out that half of all fish caught in the North Sea are thrown back overboard. He called moves to block the proposed ban “worrying in the extreme”.
A change to European common fisheries policy to ban discards looked likely as the call had been taken up by the EU fisheries chief, Maria Damanaki. Her reforms would mean that fishermen would forced to land all fish they catch, receiving some compensation.
But on Monday, a group of member states – led by France and Spain – will hijack a council meeting of all the EU’s fisheries ministers, the Guardian has learned. They will attempt to pass a “declaration” that would allow discards to continue indefinitely.
Some fishermen – mainly companies with industrial-scale vessels – want to keep discards because by throwing back lower value, though edible, fish they can maximise their profits.
The Guardian has seen a copy of the declaration that the member states want Monday’s council meeting to adopt. If it is passed, experts warned, then the hopes of banning discards would effectively be dead.
“This declaration looks like a vote for maintaining the status quo, or at best tinkering at the edges, and allowing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible fish to continue to be wasted in European waters,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall. “If it succeeds I fear we can expect negligible progress on discards for many years ahead.”
The declaration begins with statements supportive of Damanaki’s moves to reform fisheries policy. However, by the fifth of the seven clauses, the true intent of the document – to wreck the discard ban – becomes clear, as the ban is dismissed as “unrealistic” and “too prescriptive”.
The signatories “re-state their commitment to an ambitious reform of the common fisheries policy,[and] reiterate their view that the wasteful practice of discarding fish, that is tolerated and in some cases even promoted by the current management system, constitutes a considerable obstacle on the road to a sustainable fisheries policy.”
But this is followed by: “[We] consider that a discard ban as proposed in the draft basic regulation of the future common fisheries policy is unrealistic and too prescriptive, and that a pragmatic approach is needed especially in the context of mixed fisheries, particularly in the Mediterranean [and] support instead the inclusion of a significant reduction of discards … on a fisheries-based approach.”
These caveats would effectively mean that fishermen could continue to discard edible fish at sea indefinitely.
“This will kill the reform,” one Brussels insider said. “It would be the end. Monday is make or break time for the policy.”
Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace UK, said: “We cannot accept another decade of discarded fish and devastated fish stocks. 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. 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.”
The member states currently signed up to the declaration are led by France and Spain – the two countries “that make the music” on fisheries policy, according to one fisheries expert, as the positions those two adopt are usually followed by newer member states. They are joined by Portugal and Belgium, but other countries are wavering. Italy and Cyprus may sign up, as may the Irish. Heavy lobbying is going on behind the scenes, and will continue until the meeting on Monday.
Germany is undecided on its stance, but the UK is seen as unlikely to sign up because of the strong public position taken by ministers on the issue. However, an influential select committee of MPs said recently, in a controversial judgement, that discards should be allowed to continue.
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.
Spain’s stance was prefigured in a secret document revealed by the Guardian this year, which showed that the previous Spanish government was planning to scupper the proposed ban. The incoming government said at the time its position had not been decided, but it is now evident that Spain – which has the EU’s biggest fleet and receives more of the EU’s fishing subsidies than any other member state – is orchestrating opposition to the ban.
“Ending this horrendous waste has to be the number one priority of a reformed CFP, and I’m going to do all I can to keep it on the top of everyone’s agenda,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall, “Over three quarters of a million people have already signed the Fish Fight petition calling for an end to discards … Now its time for the politicians and decision makers to make it happen.”