Hugh on the Back Foot


It is perhaps not surprising that Hugh’s Fish Fight is now mounting a rather desperate attempt to shore up the credibility of its campaign to ban discards, after a powerful piece in the Times suggested that the public and politicians were misled into supporting an EU discard ban.

Evidence was presented to the Fish Fight campaign to show that
discards in our fisheries were not a static or growing problem but were in fact,
being steadily reduced. The NFFO advised Hugh, on film, that discarding by the
English fleet had been reduced by 50% over the previous decade. That statistic
did not appear in any of his programmes.

Information on discard trends have been reinforced more
recently by further work in ICES, that confirms that the absolute amount of
discards in the North Sea roundfish fisheries (one of those in which discards
have historically been very high) have
been reduced by 90% over the last 20 years.
There are a number of reasons
for this drastic reduction including, a significantly smaller fleet, using more
selective gear, over a period of lower recruitment.

The statistics on the general
discard trends were there at the time, for anyone who cared to look, as Hugh’s
campaign reached its crescendo. The point is that Hugh’s Fish Fight didn’t look very hard for them, presumably
because they would have spoiled a rather simple narrative of a hero at the head
of a crusade. Looking like a Johnny-come-lately who arrived at the scene after
90% of the work has been done wouldn’t carry quite the same cache. The central
point is that if Hugh was interested in a fair, balanced picture his team had a
responsibility to look into the issue and the statistics more deeply. They

The alternative conclusion is that
they knew but took the cynical decision to ignore them.


This Federation has taken the view that discards are a major problem in some of our fisheries and that the
Common fisheries Policy has amplified the problem by the way it has managed its
fisheries. That much we have in common with Hugh.

Where we part company with Hugh is his belief is that an EU
ban is the best way to secure further progress is through a top-down blanket
ban (albeit with some scope for flexibilities and exemptions)

Fishermen from right around the coast feel aggrieved that
they now face a period of uncertainty and change on a massive scale, with no
guaranteed that their businesses will survive, to solve a problem that was
already well on its way to being solved. That is not to be complacent about discards,
it is to take a page out of the Norwegian experience, from which we can learn
that a steady, incremental approach, resolving issues as they arise is the
correct way to reduce discards; and that achieving other important fisheries
objectives such as high yields, high levels of compliance and of course,
profitable as well as sustainable fisheries should not be lost.

Hugh’s blog makes some other points on which it is important
to comment:

  • There is less fish out there to catch: For Hugh to claim in
    his most recent blog that there are fewer discards because there “is less fish out there to catch” than
    in the early 1990s, suggests to us that if he is to continue as a
    campaigner in fisheries he should spend less time with his frying pan and
    more time studying ICES stock assessments. Fishing mortality has reduced
    by 50% since 2000 and the stocks are responding, sometimes dramatically.
  • Discards are down because of effort control (Days at Sea limits): Effort
    control introduced under the Cod Recovery Plan will have had very little
    impact on discards because so few vessels were actually constrained by it;
    the reduction in fleet days at sea is mainly because of the reduction in
    the size of the fleet.
  • The Discard Rate in the North Sea Cod Fishery has increased: Of course it has. The TACs in this
    mixed fishery have been set artificially low for several years in relation
    to the abundance because NS cod is seen as an iconic species in the media
    spotlight which must be rebuilt as rapidly as possible. Unless additional measures
    such as the Catch Quota Trials
    are made to work, the discard rate will increase.


The North Sea Roundfish fishery is
of course only one fishery, although one which historically had a serious
discard problem.

On the most recent statistics, 40%
of the catch in the North Sea is discarded. But 80% of that 40% is comprised of
two species: plaice and dab. These are big tonnages. A lot of this is caught in
the sole fishery where further selectivity without losing the valuable sole catch
is very difficult.

However, scientists reckon that up
to 6o% of plaice survive (depending on season, gear, length of tow etc). We
think therefore plaice is likely to be a candidate for a high survival
exemption. And the problem with dab is that they have low market value although
they are perfectly edible. That is why we suggest that celebrity chefs in
future should devote their main energies to encouraging their consumption.

All this highlights the complexity
of the issues and the need for a fishery-by-fishery approach.

Hugh’s credibility as a
campaigner may have been dented but one thing is certain, the EU landings
obligation will come into force for
the main demersal fisheries on January 1 2016. How the ban is implemented will be critical. If the regional
discard plans developed by member states are well thought through, make
intelligent use of the quota flexibilities and exemptions, we as an industry
will do our bit to adapt. And there are potentially some good things in the
approach, such as the incentives for skippers to fish more selectively; and the
removal of those EU rules which generate discards. It is however a high risk
strategy both in terms of vessel and fleet viability and losing undermining the
progress towards sustainable fishing that has been made over the last 15 years
or so.

NFFO Chief Executive Barrie Deas debating the discard ban with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on Newsnight