A ban on the controversial practice of throwing vast quantities of fish overboard from trawlers simply to meet EU quota restrictions could be counter-productive and should be delayed, MPs have warned.
A new report by Parliament’s backbench environment committee on proposals to reform the EU’s widely-criticised Common Fisheries Policy has concluded a ban on so-called “discards”, planned by Brussels for the end of next year, may “do more harm than good” and should be delayed until 2020.
The large numbers of fish being thrown back overboard by European fishermen provoked huge public outcry after the issue was highlighted last year by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
He suggested as much as half of all fish caught in the North Sea were being thrown back dead or dying, in order to meet EU quotas aimed at preventing over-fishing.
The chef’s high-profile Fish Fight campaign to ban discards attracted almost a million supporters.
But today’s report by the environment, food and rural affairs committee has concluded the EU’s proposed 2014 ban is likely to prove unworkable and may merely shift the problem of discards from sea to land – and ultimately into landfill.
Chairwoman Anne McIntosh, MP for Thirsk and Malton, said: “Everyone is appalled by revelations about the levels of discarding. We heard first-hand from fishermen how frustrating it is for them to have to throw back perfectly good cod into the sea.
“The (EU) Commission is right to want to tackle this but we are concerned that a knee-jerk reaction to the public outcry will do more harm than good.
“The last thing we want to see is unwanted fish in the sea becoming unwanted fish in landfill.”
The committee also said it had mapped out a possible way of bringing some control over local fisheries policy back to individual member states, without the need for full-scale EU treaty changes, and called on the Government to be bold in pursuing such a goal.
“Centralised micro-management by Brussels has failed UK fishermen,” Miss McIntosh said.
“Member states must have greater say over fisheries policy in their own waters, so we are calling on Government to press for a more ambitious reform that genuinely brings power back to member states.”
Greater Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell told the Yorkshire Post he fully backed efforts to repatriate powers, and such a move would be strongly supported within the local industry.
“The point is a good one,” he said. “It’s time powers were brought back to regional committees which are closer to their local industry. The main problem with the common policy is that these decisions are being made far away in Brussels.”
A ban on discards, he added, would be “very hard to implement”, suggesting technical innovations such as nets which only catch specific types of fish will ultimately be more effective.
The environment committee said in its report it “strongly supported” efforts to minimise discards, but concluded any ban should be delayed to give fishermen time to adapt, and for more in-depth assessments to be made of the long-term environmental impacts.
Some species of fish, such as cod, appeared to have high survival rates when thrown back into the sea, the report said, and making fishermen land them may actually have a negative environmental consequence.
The MPs said: “We are concerned that by deciding to implement a discard ban swiftly and without full engagement with stakeholders, the Commission risks creating a scheme that will be unworkable, or worse, will merely shift unwanted fish in the sea to unwanted fish on land.
“Moreover, we are concerned survival rates after discarding have not been assessed for all the species covered by the proposed ban, and so the ban could have perverse environmental impacts.”
The ban should therefore be brought in only gradually, the report found, alongside other methods to encourage fishermen to be more selective in their catches.