Tonnes of fish discarded as bycatch in the UK, FOI finds

Shrimp bycatch
Shrimp bycatch © Steven Fruitsmaak

Several thousand tonnes of dead fish have been illegally discarded as bycatch by trawlers in the North Sea and west coast of Scotland this year, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

Small, juvenile fish often end up getting caught in scampi fisheries because their mesh nets are so small. Under EU regulations introduced earlier this year to curb overfishing, boats are no longer allowed to discard any undersized fish they catch.

Instead, the smaller fish – which cannot be sold for human consumption – must be taken back to land, to count towards their overall quota. 

Data showed that more than 2,600 tonnes of unwanted codhaddock, whiting and saithe were estimated to have been caught in scampi fisheries in the first three months of this year. This will result in the waste of around 10,500 tonnes of dead fish by the end of 2019, according to an FOI response analysed by marine campaigning group Open Seas

The landing data shows virtually none of this bycatch is declared in port – which means a large portion of it must be illegally thrown out of the boat. 

This means fishermen are not discouraged from fishing in shallow coastal waters where juvenile fish live, so fragile populations of fish like North Sea cod are not given chance to recover. 

Illegal discard of bycatch continues

Phil Taylor, head of policy for Open Seas, says: “There is now overwhelming evidence that the shocking practice of fish discarding is continuing illegally in our coastal seas. The problem is clear-cut for scampi trawlers which often use small meshed nets that catch of large volumes of unwanted, young fish, often less than 20cm in length. 

“This evidence sadly reveals these are being routinely chucked back into the sea dead, in spite of the law.

“This is driving overfishing of fish stocks in these areas that are already on their knees,” said Mr Taylor, who also received footage from an anonymous source showing dead fish being dumped back into the sea. 

The footage is likely to include juvenile cod and whiting, according to Open Seas. These two species of fish are particularly vulnerable to overfishing having collapsed in this area in the 2000s and never properly recovered.  Mr Taylor says: “This is a desperate situation. We can’t continue ignoring such short-termism that is undermining the environmental health of  our seas and even the future of the trawling sector itself.

“Scampi from places like this is being sold as ‘responsibly sourced’ by the seafood industry that seem to be turning a blind eye to this destruction. We challenge both Scottish ministers and the scampi sector to take urgent action to end this damage.” 

“Nothing left to fish”

Environmental groups have long pushed for the fishing industry to adopt practices that reduce bycatch. 

The use of “escape panels” has allowed some fisheries to reduce the amount of other bycatch, most of which are small juvenile fish that haven’t yet had chance to breed.

In May, a House of Lords committee report concluded there was “little evidence” that the UK industry had been following the new landing rules and found the new regulations had had “little impact” on dead fish being discarded back into the sea. Lord Teverson, chairman of the House of Lords EU energy and environment sub-committee, said that the UK fishing industry “could in the future find itself with nothing left to fish.”

The UK consumes 15,000 tonnes of North Sea cod every year and the battle to protect stocks of fish in UK waters has been going on for years. 

Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall started his TV show Hugh’s Fish Fight in 2011 to try and change the process of chucking out bycatch. His public petition attracted 870,000 signatures. 

Lack of prosecution

If fishermen do discard their fish illegally, government agency Marine Scotland has the power to issue penalty points that could mean the offender’s fishing licences is suspended for up to one year. No one has been prosecuted yet. 

A spokesperson from the government says: “We support the landing obligation where good valuable fish are not thrown back dead and will enforce any breaches we encounter.

“Any issues of compliance with the landing obligation should not be viewed in isolation, this is a EU wide problem, in very complex mixed fisheries. For example in Scottish waters there can be up to 12 different non Scottish nationalities of vessels present at any one time.

“However, we believe it is vital that we put in place an appropriate response to landing obligations in order to protect stock and to secure the long term sustainability of our fleet.

“We would encourage anyone who has evidence of suspected infringements of the law to provide it to us.  We will investigate to the extent that the evidence allows.”

Reports of suspicious activity can be made anonymously on the helpline 0131 271 9700.

This article was originally published as Thousands of tonnes of dead fish illegally thrown into UK seas every year, investigation finds at The Independent on 28/10/2019.

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