Terrible waste caused by fish quotas is brought to surface by chef's campaign

Three years ago, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall joined forces with Jamie Oliver in a high-profile and controversial campaign that exposed the reality of cheap, mass-produced chicken in the UK. Together they attempted to raise standards within the food industry and change the nation's eating habits.

These may have been lofty ambitions but the publicity their campaign attracted meant that more people stopped to think about where food comes from and those who produce it.

Now, they have been joined by fellow superchefs Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, this time turning their attention to the UK fishing industry. Hugh's Fish Fight, which begins tonight, is part of a series of Channel 4 programmes on fish and follows the campaigning chef as he heads out on a Scottish trawler.

Focusing on the three species most widely consumed in the UK – cod, salmon and tuna – Whittingstall examines the challenges of maintaining diminishing stocks as well as possible solutions to what remains a global issue.

In his first programme, he highlights the widespread practice of "discards" – where around 1m tonnes of undersized and less marketable fish are thrown back into the sea dead every year at huge financial, environmental and ecological cost. A large proportion of this is prime cod, haddock, coley, whiting, plaice, among others, for which the fishermen have already met their allotted quota.

"More than half of the fish caught in the North Sea are being thrown back dead," says the 45-year-old chef.

"For every fish that ends up being consumed, another fish ends up dead floating away in the sea. It's just wrong."

Scientists have warned that many popular species of fish, such as cod, tuna and salmon – which account for half of the fish we eat – are facing over fishing, but the TV chef discovered that EU measures designed to protect fish stocks ironically result in many being thrown back.

"Certain species, like cod, rightly need protection, and so boats get given an annual quota for catching them," he explains. "The problem is fishermen catch all those fish within a few months, but will continue to fish for other species, and catch a lot of cod in their nets at the same time. These then get thrown back dead into the sea."

During the course of one trip, Whittingstall estimated that around 35,000 worth of fish went over the side.

"The problem we've identified in all our shows is that we are, as a nation, absolutely obsessed by three species of fish. You only have to take that 50 per cent statistic on board and you immediately know there will be unfortunate consequences from that level of obsession. If that's half the fish we eat, its not going to be sustainable for very long."

Whittingstall says he was devastated to see the levels of waste while on the fishing boat: "After one trawl, I suggested we take all fish that normally goes down the chute straight back into the sea, into baskets on the deck. After just one five-hour trawl, we had 21 baskets of fish; 600 kilos of prime cod and coley. The crew couldn't believe how much fish there was. We could have fed 2,000 people – and that's just from one trawl of the day."

He describes the moment as a "real low point" and admits the men working on the boat were shocked by a situation that is out of their control. "Most of the time they're in the hold working on the catch, so they don't really see it. This brought it home to everyone."

Britain is governed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which is designed to make EU fishing grounds accessible to all member states and ensure they are managed sustainably. However, critics claim it is failing to achieve this goal and has led to a dramatic decline in employment levels in the UK fishing industry.

The UK Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, told the Yorkshire Post that the throwing back of dead fish into the sea is one of the biggest failures of the Common Fisheries Policy. "Both Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and I are pushing for the same thing. I am working to end this disgraceful practice that is forced on the fishing industry through a policy that is clearly no longer fit for purpose."

He wants to see a complete overhaul of the Common Fisheries Policy when it ends next year. "We need a better system and a decentralised approached where fishermen are allowed to be a part of the solution. Fishermen need to have greater flexibility in how they fish, landing more but catching less, and to have greater freedom to transfer, buy or sell quota so allocations match what happens at sea, helping to reduce the dreadful waste of discards."

This year's EU fishing limits are due to be announced later this month, but many are expecting to see a tightening of restrictions on some stocks.

In 2010, the quota for cod fishing was cut by 15 to 35 per cent, depending on the area, and catches of haddock and sole were also cut. Although there were increased quotas for some other types of fish, including plaice and herring.

The decline of the UK fishing industry can be seen here in Yorkshire. Thirty years ago, 130 trawlers operated out of Yorkshire coast ports, but the number of boats has now shrunk to 11. Fishermen blame this on European bureaucracy and, in December, a campaign was launched to persuade European Union fishery chiefs to bend the rules on catch restrictions to ensure the survival of dwindling fleets in three of Yorkshire's oldest fishing communities.

A plea from Yorkshire fishing leaders was sent to Commissioner Maria Damanki, director-general for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in Brussels to mitigate the impact of the EU fisheries policy on Scarborough, Whitby, and Filey.

However, Scarborough fishing leader Fred Normandale says North Sea fishermen remain hamstrung by what he calls a "bureaucratic nightmare".

"The state of fishing is poor, but the state of the fish stocks is good. But because of EU quotas and regulations we have a situation where we can catch the fish but we can't land it, it's criminal," he says.

"The quota system is totally flawed. Yes, we get a percentage of different fish but fish don't swim in percentages." He accepts there was too much fishing in the past, but says the situation has changed.

"In the '70s, there were too many boats chasing too few fish but that's not the case any more. Scarborough only has seven trawlers, Bridlington doesn't have any and Whitby just has four."

He claims there are more fish, including cod, in the North Sea than there has been for years. "There's a rich stock, it's better than I've seen since I started fishing 40 years ago. There's not the fleet to damage the stocks now."

He believes the people best placed people to assess fish stocks are those whose livelihood it is to catch them.

"We need everyone to step back and allow us to land what we catch, because that's the best way of knowing what the stock levels are, and once we have a picture of what is there then we can manage the situation factually.

"Let the fishermen do the science and then assess it year on year, because that way they will believe the results."

Hugh's Fish Fight starts tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm. To join his protest against EU quotas visit www.fishfight.net+