Recent years of publicity on the horrendous mismanagement of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and the graphic manifestation of this failure which is discarding, are issues which have remained open wounds for 30 years.
There are two issues which lead to discarding. Both show the ineptitude of EU policy, management and decision making often bent by political agenda as exposed below.
One issue of discarding is due to the Quota system the EU uses to allocate and manage its Total Allowable Catch (TAC) shares. Where vessels must discard species they have exhausted their quota for in order to keep fishing for those species which the EU quotas say it can keep.
In its wisdom the EU addressed the symptoms of discards by legislating to ban vessels from discarding – rather than address the problem – that the EU quota system doesn’t work in the dynamic mixed fisheries around the British Isles.
Now the rules state that if a vessel exhausts its lowest quota it must tie up for the remainder of the year – even if it has plenty quota for other species.
The governments own agency Seafish quantified in a study that this would leave 60% of UK quota uncaught and presumably a similar proportion of what is left of the British fleet would go bankrupt due to these early tie ups
The other issue of discarding of undersized fish that could have been prevented with modifying the design and construction of fishing gear but which strict and inflexible EU rules on technical measures prevented.
The events which brought the subject of undersized fish being needlessly slaughtered go back over 30 years.
Essentially, each species of fish is allocated a Minimum Landing Size (MLS), which is ideally the size the fish reach one or two years after being able to breed.
Any fish caught below the MLS had to be thrown back into the sea, dead, along with any other species caught for which you have no quota. They thus ended up being a pollutant, or at best, sea bird food.
This was clearly a ridiculous and immoral situation. In an attempt to find a solution, two top divers from the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen built themselves an underwater vehicle in which both could sit.
The vehicle would be towed by a fishing vessel and one would be filming while the other steered. Their pioneering research was the first study of the reaction of different species of fish to fishing gear. They conducted trials on the west coast of Scotland, and the results were remarkable.
To understand the significance of this research, it is important to understand how nets (trawls) are constructed. Those who have been to coastal harbours will have seen netting lying around. The material used in the construction of netting these days is called diamond mesh.
The material is very strong and is also able to concertina in and out according to the strains placed on it. The first problem which the researchers discovered related to the behaviour of fish as the opening in the netting opens and closes.
When the opening closes and a fish tries to escape from the net, it pushes through the mesh and when it thinks it is through, it gives a flick with its tail. However, if the mesh has closed before the fish actually has escaped, the flick will result in scales coming off its tail, which then goes septic, and the fish dies.
Another problem concerned the raising of nets from the sea bed. In round fish such as cod, coley and haddock, the swim bladder ruptures as they are hauled to the surface whereas flat fish do not suffer to the same degree and thus a higher percentage survive.
By turning the mesh through 90 degrees, it now tows on the square and this has the advantage of the opening staying the same size. In this position, the mesh is not very strong. However, by strategically placing sections of square mesh within an otherwise diamond mesh trawl, it proved possible to come up with a design of net which allowed the small fish to escape.
Unfortunately, this brilliant solution fell foul of regulations on the permissible size of netting used. For example, diamond mesh of 90mm will capture smaller fish than square mesh of 90mm. The optimum size for the square mesh would have been 80mm, but the authorities would not permit this.
Another finding by the Aberdeen divers was that haddock swim upwards when trying to escape, whereas cod seek to escape by going downwards. Separator trawls were designed with a panel inserted horizontally throughout the trawl, with two cod-ends, one top section for haddock and one at the bottom for cod (Cod ends are the end of the trawl, where the catch ends up, and is emptied into where the catch is sorted.)
The Canadians took this research further. They were concerned about their shrimp fishery, which was particular heavy on the slaughter of juvenile fish. By placing a grid, set at a given angle, in the tube of the trawl before the cod end, with a hole cut in the top of the tube, the shrimp go through the grid, to be retained in the cod end, while the fish escape through the hole, free to go on living.
If some of these technical innovations had been introduced at that time, instead of decades later, we would have saved thousands of tons of small fish, but there was no desire whatever to improve the situation for our fishermen because it would have removed what from the EU’s point of view was a beneficial crisis.
The message that there were ‘too many vessels chasing too few fish’ would have been spoiled by this beneficial measure. This was the time Spain was being accommodated into the Common Fisheries Policy, bringing with it a huge fishing fleet but very little extra resource other than third country agreements.
The message that fish were being dumped unnecessarily was a convenient way for the EU – with the full connivance of the British government of the time – legitimately to get rid of the British fleet under the name of conservation.
Britain was the innovator in this technology, but because we were tied to the Common Fisheries Policy through our membership of the then EEC, now EU, we could not take the initiative, as fisheries was an EU competence and we had obligations under our accession treaty.
Therein lies the problem with the Common Fisheries Policy, a rigid political structure that works against nature driven mainly by political considerations of building integrated EU political policy rather than what is best for communities or the environment.
The Euro and the damage it has inflicted on Mediterranean economies stands as further testimony to indite the EU projects lust for ever closer union regardless of the social, economic or environmental consequences.
Looking to the future, separating species on the sea bed through modification of fishing gear is possible when you have only two species to separate, possibly three.
Within UK waters, we have far more than that in our rich and dynamic mixed fishery and it becomes impossible to deliver the selectivity that is required to comply with rigid quotas.
Quotas mainly set wholly out of line with actual species abundance because, due to discarding, scientists haven’t a true picture of actual catch levels on which to base an accurate scientific assessment.
That then comes back to why the EU quota system is such an abject failure. It is a rigid system at odds with a dynamic environment. The management provides no flexibility to allow fishermen to keep what they catch.
Resultantly, whilst technical measures could have (and when belatedly introduced did) help alleviate the problem of undersized fish being caught, the are not sufficient to over come the fundamentally flawed rigid quota system.
When you witness the damage inflicted on our marine resources, you wonder what you could achieve if we had been free to run our own policy that would work with nature instead of against it.
It’s a marvel the ability of our natural environment to have survived the EU’s greed and incompetence where, because of discarding due to quotas and decades of stifling technical innovation, fishermen have been forced to catch twice the amount of fish the limits apparently deemed sustainable which they can land.
The whole fisheries management system needs changing. This can happen only with a clean and proper Brexit, whereby we would become once again a nation state, upholding national sovereignty and operating a fisheries management system based on effort, not quotas, as proposed by Fishing for Leave.
In such a system, fishermen, scientists, legislators and enforcers must, and can, work with each other, setting the example. At the moment, everyone is working against everyone else, while the EU pursues its integration vision, with the damage to the UK fishing industry being regarded as acceptable collateral damage.
This is why we need a clean Brexit immediately with no roll over or ties to the CFP in a Brexit In Name Only as the dire Withdrawal Agreement would deliver.
We need to chart a new course and must do so immediately, as failure to will result in more environmental damage and more of the British fishing industry and coastal communities collapsing under the horrendous quota system and failed EU policies.