Like fly fishing, sea fishing has become a fine art. Most fishing techniques will involve some take of fish which the fisher may not want or may not be allowed to take. This could be because they are undersized or of a species that the fisher does not have quota for. In some cases fishers are allowed to throw unwanted fish back into the sea, a practice referred to as discarding.
Discarding can be a significant share of the total, as is the case in some shrimp fisheries where unwanted catch may be up to 90% of the total catch. While gear technology and skilled fishers can reduce by-catch it is not possible to avoid it entirely.
Regulatory tools such a seasonal or area closures can help but, alas, cannot completely eliminate the discard problem. Some species of fish swim together and it may not be possible for even the best fisher with best technology to avoid catching some unwanted (or disallowed) fish.
Once a fish is caught, it is almost certainly going to die either because it is out of the water or because it was injured in the process. You do not want to be the first herring taken in a fishing net being towed for miles and with tons of fish on top of you.
Discarding fish wastes resources. An EU ban adopted by the EU Fisheries Ministers in February 2013 will be phased in gradually, beginning with the North Sea in 2014. By 2019 it will cover all the EU’s fisheries, with some exceptions. There are a number of reasons why a discard ban is a good thing. First, throwing away valuable and edible fish protein does not make sense and is a questionable moral as well as economic issue. Discards can also significantly complicate stock management, as the total harvest of the resource is unknown. This means data and information gaps for sustainable and responsible fisheries management.
Some people claim there is no market for the unwanted fish. This may be true in some cases but most cases fish are discarded not because they have no value, but because the fisher can make higher profits by only keeping higher value fish.
So here’s the catch: almost any fish can be used to produce fish meal and oil, a key ingredient in animal and fish feed and for pharmaceuticals. And as fish meal and oil is in high demand for feed in fish farming there may be a ready market for the “unwanted” fish brought ashore.
Many fisheries around the world are overfished and deliver poor returns to fishers. Effective fisheries management is needed to improve the economic situation of fishing communities. Part of the solution is finding ways to reduce incentives to discard by eliminating regulatory obstacles and finding market-based approaches that increase the value of all fish caught such that fishers no longer choose to discard.
The introduction of the EU discard ban is a step in the right direction as it will improve resource use and management of stocks and thus contributes to green growth. However, the international fisheries sector still needs more action to rebuild fisheries and implement reforms to sustain them.
For more detail, contact Carl-Christian Schmidt at the OECD
©OECD Observer No 296 Q1 2013