The discards amount to about one-third of the entire North Sea catch, says WWF, an estimate outdone last year by the European Union, which estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of all fish caught by trawlers in the North Sea is discarded.
The report, "Sea Creatures Are Not Rubbish," says that discards of fish that are too small to meet catch quotas or species for which the fishermen have no quota are not accurately measured. This could indicate an even greater level of over-fishing is happening than is currently recognized in official estimates.
"Bycatch is an incredible waste and one of the largest threats to many sea creatures," said Karoline Schacht, fisheries policy officer with WWF-Germany. "The drama happens far away at sea but this unseen wastefulness must come to an end."
WWF is calling for a gradual ban on the practice of discarding bycatch across the entire European Union.
At a meeting in Brussels in September, scientists, administrators and control experts from the EU and Norway, which is not an EU member state, agreed on the "urgent need" to consider concrete measures such as real-time closures and improved gear selectivity, to tackle the problem of discards in the North Sea.
Sorting a catch aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. (Photo by TeamTrev)
While both parties agree that it is very difficult to entirely eliminate discarding, they have recognized that the current huge waste of valuable food resources cannot be allowed to continue.
"Discarding means a waste of great quantities of valuable fish. It is a major environmental scandal that we must strongly tackle," said European Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg.
The WWF reports in the case of Dover sole, six kilos of sea creatures are caught and discarded for every kilo of Dover sole that makes it to market.
Similarly, five kilos of unwanted sea animals are discarded for every kilo of Norwegian lobster or scampi sold.
The European Union recently declared that 88 percent of the fisheries stocks of the EU are overfished, compared with 25 percent on average globally. Bycatch is a major contributor to overfishing, the report points out.
Every year several million sharks and up to 250,000 sea turtles are caught as bycatch in fishing operations designed to catch other species.
A special Fish Discards Summit hosted by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh in September heard that fishermen in Scotland are being forced to throw away up to £40 million worth of fish every year.
The level of waste was revealed by Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead to fishermen, scientists, conservationists and Norwegian government representatives at the meeting called to work out how to reduce the dumping of marketable fish at sea.
"Discards are bad news. Bad news for fishermen, bad news for consumers and bad news for the environment," said Lochhead, who blamed European rules for the discarding of almost a million tonnes of North Sea fish every year.
"I am appalled and frustrated at the scandalous level of waste and the economic and environmental madness discards represent. In what other industry would it be acceptable to throw away so much of what is produced?" Lochhead said.
"Responsible and hard-working skippers are heartbroken because they have to throw away precious fish. That is why they, like me, are determined to tackle the scourge of discards."
The summit kicked off a campaign by the Scottish government to change some of the European rules which force trawlermen to throw away fish which could be landed and sold.
There are a number of reasons why fishermen are currently having to discard large amounts of marketable fish, particularly North Sea cod. One important reason is the mismatch between the quota available for North Sea cod and the increased abundance of the stock.
The Scottish minister says if North Sea cod quotas were increased, fewer fish would be discarded. Making sure the fleet catches less overall - as well as landing more - is an important part of the equation when it comes to reducing discards, he said.
In August, a British trawler triggered an international incident when it was video-taped by Norwegian Coastguard personnel taking a boatload of endangered cod caught in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea and then dumping most of it overboard in UK waters.
WWF is calling for a European-wide discard ban and a bycatch action package. "In the future every fish caught should be landed and allocated to the catch quota," says the conservation organization.
At the same time, WWF would like to see fishermen obligated to use better catch technologies. The conservation group says the bycatch in some fisheries could be reduced by up to 90 percent with better technology.
Scottish government is proposing making fishing nets more selective so that only fish above the minimum landing sizes are caught. Secondly, the Scots would close areas of the sea on a temporary basis where high abundances of certain species are found as has been happening under Scotland's innovative real-time closures scheme or restricting the number of days a boat is allowed to spend at sea.
Commissioner Borg says the EU has proposed a new regulation on the types of fishing gear which would be allowed in the North Sea. This regulation would simplify existing measures and improve the escapement of young fish, he said.
But a legislative initiative against the practice of discarding fish, announced by the European Commission, was recently "torpedoed by the powerful fishery lobby of some member countries," says WWF-Germany.
"That is an outright scandal," said Schacht. "Behind closed doors is an attempt to prevent sustainable fisheries."
In January, on a vote of 616 to 22, the European Parliament adopted a resolution based on a report drafted by Swedish Greens/EFA Member Carl Schlyter to reduce unwanted bycatch and eliminate discards in European fisheries.
Members of Parliament support shifting the emphasis of the Common Fisheries Policy so that the practice of discarding is virtually eliminated. They stressed the urgency of "developing regulations to eliminate this environmentally unsustainable and immoral practice which in extreme cases can account for up to 90 percent of all fish caught."
Yet, nearly nine months later, the practice of discarding continues.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.