The Failure of the Discard Ban – a tragedy in five parts

In EU fisheries there is a constant struggle to between maximising profit for the fishing industry in the short term and sustainable, selective fishing that would benefit both the environment and the fisheries for future generations. A perfect example of this is the failure to reduce the wasteful practice of discarding fish bycaught in almost al EU fisheries. 

In 2011, over one million people signed a petition from celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall aimed at stopping the wasteful discarding of dead fish in EU fisheries. Standing in front of the Houses of Parliament, with two large North Sea cod in his hands, Fearnley-Whittingstall called out the ‘unacceptable and shameful practice’ of throwing overboard huge amounts of perfectly edible fish, which unaccounted for can lead to overfishing. NGO’s had campaigned for years to make EU fisheries more selective and drastically reduce discarding, but the simple message of his FishFight campaign, coupled to the shocking images of tonnes of fish being dumped in the sea resonated with a wide public. The cause was subsequently taken on by ministers and MEPs around Europe and by the Fisheries Commissioner, Maria Damanaki. In 2013 the revised Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) came into force, with one of its central elements being an ‘obligation to land all catches’ and thus, at least on paper, prohibit discarding.[1] This discard ban was implemented gradually but applies to all EU fisheries as of January 1stof 2019. 

So has anything changed? Has this unethical, wasteful and harmful practice ended for good? Alas no. Seven years later we can say that countries have instead worked to ensure their fishers can keep operating on a business as usual scenario. 


EU fisheries in the Atlantic ocean are managed through catch limits set on a yearly basis. Fishers get a share (quota), which represents the amount they can fish of a certain species. But not all fish have a limits attached, for example fish with no or low value tend to have no limits on them. As the landing obligation only applies to species that have catch limits, in some cases managers chose to remove these limits for some species to allow discarding of these to continue. 

An example of this is the North Sea trawl fishery for plaice and sole, which had a problem with dab. This small flatfish swims together with the other flatfish making it hard to avoid. Its market value is only a fraction of the value of more desirable fish like plaice and sole, hence more than 80% of all dab catches were discarded, mostly dead. When the discard ban came into force fishers feared having to land tonnes of worthless dab, so instead the member states requested that the EU would remove the catch limit for this species entirely, thus getting around the ban without having to reduce dab discards. 


To protect endangered species the CFP has a list of prohibited species that need to be thrown back immediately if accidentally caught. This is a conservation measure to ensure internationally protected species like basking shark and manta rays are left alone as much as possible. However, the Landing Obligation gave a perverse incentive to declare a range of species prohibited – as prohibited species have to be promptly released it provides a license to keep discarding. In 2019 all deep-sea shark species were placed on the prohibited species list. There are no measures in place to avoid the capture of these highly vulnerable, long lived species that live below 200 meters depth and now there is no incentive to develop them as fishers can keep throwing them overboard. 


Within the Landing Obligation there is a possibility to get an exemption if it is scientifically proven that the species has a high chance of surviving discarding. Although this exemption was meant for species that were already known to have a high survival rate, like sharks and rays, it led to a big research effort to find evidence for high survival in a myriad of species. Not all these trials were successful, but this did not prevent member states from requesting exemptions anyway and the Commission from granting them, sometimes even with no evidence presented. Plaice in the North Sea was granted an exemption with a proven survival rate of just 17%, meanwhile mackerel in purse seine was granted one even though the evidence presented was on herring. 


For some species that are in a very poor state the scientific advice is to avoid all catches, which should be reflected by setting the catch limit to zero. In mixed fisheries, where there are more than one species fishers might catch, this presents a problem. If the Landing Obligation is correctly enforced this would mean that all fisheries with potential catches of species with a catch limit of zero would have to close, even if these species were not the target fish. In this way these ‘bycatch’ species would block the fishery for other fish species that have quota available. To prevent this choke effect policymakers decided to allow fishers small quotas for these species with zero catch advice, provided bycatch reduction plans were also developed to bring down the catches. Although this went against the letter of the law it would allow the fisheries to remain open whilst still reducing the level of discards, in keeping with the spirit of the ban. 

In May this year the member states presented Bycatch Reduction Plans for several species in the Celtic Sea and West of Scotland, and they were bleak. They contained only existing measures and no timeline or aspirations.[2] The net effect on reduction of discards of the Bycatch Reduction Plans that are currently on the table is zero. 

Photo by Corey Arnold


Fishers made the case that, especially in a mixed fishery, not all unwanted catches could be avoided by fishing more selectively. To cover these unavoidable catches policymakers gave them additional quota to cover the part of the catch that they previously would have discarded. These ‘top-ups’ were given to member states for all species that came under the Landing Obligation and most then handed them out to fishers with no strings attached and hardly any enforcement capabilities. The result is to be expected, these additional quotas appear to be added to the marketable catch.

In the UK, some fisheries had unavoidable bycatches of small (young) cod. In order to dissuade fishers from deliberately catching fish which will have never had a chance to reproduce, these undersize cod cannot be sold for human consumption. Prior to the Landing Obligation they had to be discarded, following the introduction of the discard ban this supposedly inevitable bycatch of unsellable fish would now have to be landed for and the ‘top-up’ added should cover this. However, since the discard ban came into effect for this stock on the 1stof January 2018, not a single small cod has been reported as landed by UK fishers for the first eleven months of the year, even though their fishing practices remain the same.[3]

In 2013 the discard ban was announced as a huge victory for sustainable fisheries in Europe. Now that it is fully applicable to all EU fisheries one can only conclude that it has failed to deliver on the promise to reduce unwanted catch and end the wasteful practice of discarding dead fish. A focus by politicians on making headlines coupled with lack of clarity on what this discard ban should look like, left the door wide open to a legislation filled with loopholes which are exploited in a cynical way by ministries around Europe. Coupled with a lack of enforcement capabilities at sea, the effect has been counterproductive and has added to overexploitation of fish stocks that are already in trouble.  It’s a tragedy that policy makers chose the squander the opportunity they had seven years ago to fundamentally reduce unwanted catches in EU fisheries. 

[1] Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1954/2003 and (EC) No 1224/2009


[3] Https://

Top photo by Corey Arnold

Irene Kingma