Scottish ministers have been accused of breaking their promise to uphold European environmental rules by “legalising” the dumping of dead fish at sea.
Campaigners say that new proposals for regulating the discarding of fish which have been accidentally caught are “wasteful”, “incredibly short-sighted” and will damage fish stocks. More fish could be thrown away, they warn.
The Scottish Government says that its plans are aimed at “simplifying and improving” the rules to increase accountability and confidence. The fishing industry stresses the importance of minimising unwanted catches and ensuring all fish caught are accounted for.
In the aftermath of Brexit, Scottish ministers promised to abide by the European Union’s environmental standards. The 2021-22 programme for government included a “commitment to align with EU standards and laws” and the Scottish Parliament passed a bill in 2020 to ensure “continuity” with EU law.
In March the Scottish Government published a public consultation on future fish catching policy, asking for views by 7 June. It claimed it wanted “to adjust and simplify existing exemptions and discarding rules” to take account of different fishing practices.
The consultation proposed changes to the EU rules obliging boats to land accidentally caught fish, known as bycatch. Fish brought ashore have to be included in the legal quotas that limit catches to try and prevent stocks from being depleted.
The EU’s “landing obligation” was introduced in 2015 after controversy over boats dumping large amounts of unwanted dead fish at sea. According to the EU, between seven and 10 million tonnes of commercial fisheries catches were discarded every year around the globe.
The Scottish Government is now planning to alter the landing obligation in different ways for different boats. “We are proposing deviation on certain technical aspects from EU rules on landing,” its consultation said, while maintaining EU “principles”.
The plan will allow small, juvenile fish to be discarded as long as they are below certain sizes. An exemption will also be introduced allowing adult cod, haddock, whiting and other whitefish to be discarded if the cost of landing them is “disproportional”.
But the campaign group, Open Seas, has attacked the government for backtracking on its commitment to uphold EU laws. The proposals “take a giant leap backwards by proposing to legalise discarding,” it said in a blog.
Plans to legitimise throwing away juvenile fish, were “incredibly short sighted” and “would constitute an incredible waste of our public fish resource,” the group argued.
“Juvenile fish are the future generations of adult fish. Killing them before they have had a chance to breed is like harvesting a field of wheat that is still in flower.”
The proposed rule changes for adult fish would “hammer another nail into the fate of our collapsed inshore fish stocks,” Open Seas warned. The existing rules banning discarding were “needed to prevent overfishing and should be retained,” it said.
Open Seas has launched a campaign asking people to object to the government’s plans. “It’s deeply concerning to see a supposedly green-leaning Scottish Government backsliding on European environmental laws,” the group’s head of policy, Phil Taylor, told The Ferret.
“By pushing these proposals, the Scottish Government is now breaking its promise to keep pace with European standards — a move that will see it becoming increasingly out of step with the global sustainability agenda.”
The Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, which campaigns to control damaging fishing practices, agreed that discarding was a significant problem. But ministers’ proposals would “increase the number of circumstances when fishers are permitted to throw fish and non-fish species, dead, back into the sea,” said the trust’s executive director, Charles Millar.
“Instead of undermining the hard-won EU landing obligation, the Scottish Government should be enforcing it by improving monitoring across the fishing fleet. Mandatory on board cameras could bring an end to discarding of undersized and non-target species.”
The Marine Conservation Society also stressed the need for remote electronic monitoring with cameras. Rather than applying additional exemptions, it was “crucial that new catching policy goes further than the existing landing obligation,” said the society’s fisheries policy advocate, Clara Johnston.
“A lack of effective monitoring and enforcement of the current landing obligation has made it impossible to quantify the successes and failures of the policy, or to understand the full impact of fishing activities. Scotland’s future catching policy must address these issues.”
Scottish Labour attacked the SNP-Green coalition government for “failing to deliver” on its commitments. “It is particularly embarrassing for the Greens who appear to be tearing up their manifesto commitments on sustainable fisheries line by line since they entered government,” said the party’s rural affairs spokesperson, Colin Smyth MSP.
“Discarding results in vast volumes of fish being killed and thrown back at sea. This is environmentally damaging and frankly a shocking waste given many are juvenile fish thrown back because they are too small to market, reducing the next year’s catch.”
The Scottish Government insisted that it was committed to “maintaining alignment with the EU”. Its proposals “continue to uphold the principles underpinning the landing obligation and provide a route for ensuring the issue of discarding is properly tackled,” a spokesperson said.
“Discarding some types and sizes of fish, including juvenile fish, is already permitted under the EU landing obligation through various exemptions. In many cases these rules are complex and through the future catching policy we are looking at simplifying and improving the application of these exemptions in order to increase accountability and confidence in our fishing practices.”
The Scottish Greens highlighted that their agreement with the SNP government made a commitment to achieve and maintain “good environmental status” for all of Scotland’s seas. “With Greens in government we are working to improve marine and fisheries management in Scotland,” said a party spokesperson.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation argued that there was already a “clear incentive” not to discard fish. “There is no benefit for fishermen to waste resources catching fish that they cannot sell,” said the federation’s chief executive, Elspeth Macdonald.
“While it is not possible to completely eliminate discards in mixed fisheries, we can strive to minimise them as much as possible. The EU landing obligation essentially recognises this.”
Macdonald suggested that it was “much more relevant” to focus on improvements in fishing gear to minimise unwanted catch. “From an ecosystem perspective, it is more important to ensure that whatever is caught is accounted for,” she added.
“Proper data collection and fully documented fisheries are fully compatible with sustainable fishing. Making connections between overfishing and discards is wrong.”
According to the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, fishing boats were improving their “selectivity” to avoid catching unwanted fish. “It will be important to ensure that any future catching policy puts accountability and responsible fishing at its core,” said the association’s chief executive, Mike Park.
“The issue of whether unwanted catch should be landed onshore is of secondary importance if it is recorded and taken account of in the scientific calculations.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/photo47. The photos in this story were changed at 12.05 on 16 May 2022.