Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of people stood in support of fishing reforms to end the wasteful practice of discarding fish at sea. Now, new proposals, wrongly branded as ‘world-leading’, would see the Scottish Government backsliding on these environmental standards.
Scotland’s seas have suffered from many years of decline – the Scottish Government found in 2020 that they had failed its commitment to halt the loss of biogenic reefs, to achieve a healthy marine environment and recent publications from government scientists show that overfishing is still prevalent.
The cause of this bad environmental health is pressure from human activities, and fishing, particularly the widespread practice of bottom-trawling, sadly ranks as the most impactful throughout Scotland’s seas.
In recent decades, fishing in Scotland has been ruled by the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. After we left the EU the Scottish Government has had to replace these rules with something new – initially they intended to bring forward a Scottish Fisheries Act, something which Open Seas supports, and that is needed for the Scottish Parliament to have fully-devolved power over Scotland’s seas. However, in 2020 the Scottish Government instead sought to bring the rules of the UK Fisheries Act into the Scottish legislature and use UK laws to lead Scotland’s fisheries management, and then set out a decadal strategy – the Future Fisheries Strategy.
The strategy was mostly just setting out a vision for Scotland’s fisheries, but said very little about how fishing would actually be controlled in Scotland; instead it promised another policy to set out how this vision would be delivered – notably, action 10 of the 12 point action plan said,
“We will deliver a robust Catching Policy, in partnership with our stakeholders, which links stock management with responsive and proportionate technical and spatial measures, which delivers a reduction in waste [discarding] and which encourages compliance through appropriate enforcement actions, including the application of penalties where appropriate.”
The proposed purpose of this policy poses a great opportunity – the points we have emphasized in added bold above should in theory deliver good fisheries policy, help recover Scotland’s beleaguered fish populations and restore the condition of our seas…
Words, but no substance
Scottish Ministers launched this plan in early March, calling it “world leading fisheries management” and that it represents “a step change in the way in which unsustainable fishing practices are tackled”
Sadly, the contents are anything but.
The proposals fail to take any step towards spatial management, and instead take a giant leap backwards by proposing to legalise discarding, a practice widely shunned by fisheries managers (and the public) across Europe more than a decade ago.
What are the concerns?
Legalising the throwing away of juvenile fish
Whilst the proposals claim to set out “technical and spatial management measures to reduce catches of unwanted fish”, the actual detail of the Government’s recommendations sets out a very different picture. The proposals state explicitly:
“For undersized fish (i.e. below MCRS), we propose allowing discarding by adjusting the current de minimis rules in order to simplify them”
In other words, they propose legalising the throwing away of small, juvenile fish at sea.
Discarding fish, in particular large volumes of juvenile fish, was an issue recognised in the 2000s and remains a problem today.
In the early 2010s there was a strong agreement between industry and the public for change; fishermen decried the waste of throwing good fish overboard and environmentalists feared the impacts on fish populations. This led to the EU’s Landing Obligation or ‘discard ban’ as it was more commonly known, which was phased in from 2015-2019 (to allow the affected fishing industry time to adjust).
Sadly the rules banning this activity have been poorly managed; notably the government have done very little to ensure compliance whilst acknowledging that discarding continues in most cases. Scottish Government officials are minuted as having said: “Marine Scotland officials expressed concern over non-compliance with the landing obligation and the fact that this is not reasonable or sustainable in the long-term, particularly for those species such as haddock where there is little reasonable defence for compliance not occurring”.
Mechanisms such as “quota uplift” – where additional quota was distributed to fishermen to manage the transition to no discarding – were not used to incentivise change, but instead given out as a sort of free-for-all, with little to no monitoring to check whether these businesses were changing their practices. As a result, discarding of fish continues today illegally in many cases, and significantly contributes to overfishing.
The proposals in the Scottish Government’s new Future Catching Policy, which seek to legalise the throwing away of juvenile fish, are incredibly short sighted policy and, if allowed to progress, would constitute an incredible waste of our public fish resource.
Juvenile fish are the future generations of adult fish. Sustainable and better-managed fisheries avoid catching juveniles as much as is possible such that they grow, mature and reproduce before they are caught, allowing a sustainable cycle. Killing them before they have had a chance to breed is like harvesting a field of wheat that is still in flower.
The science on this is unequivocal, a study considering 38 fish stocks of 13 species in the nort-east Atlantic found that populations of fish were significantly depleted where catch rates of juveniles was high. It is for this reason that the current rule states “Fish below the MCRS must be landed, but cannot be sold for human consumption.”
Whilst the permitting of this waste is being presented as new thinking, it has worryingly been a Marine Scotland plan for a long time: notes from meetings in 2018 record officials stating “Marine Scotland is currently developing a de minimis case for below MCRS catch of cod and whiting and will share with the Group once it is complete.” Thankfully, this approach was not successful because, at the time, science had a greater role in decision making.
Legalising the throwing away of adult cod, haddock, whiting
The proposal to legalise discarding is not only made for juvenile fish but, in the inshore bottom trawl fisheries where bycatch is known to be a major problem (as we have reported on in the past), the Future Catching Policy proposes to allow discarding of adult fish as well. Regarding the Nephrops trawl fishery (the catch from which supplies mostly the market for scampi) the proposals state specifically:
“For [adult] fish, we intend to introduce a de minimis exemption for discarding whitefish [cod, haddock, whiting, of any size etc] bycatch on the basis of disproportionate cost”
The cost of handling these dead fish is used as the argument for allowing them to be discarded at sea. This is a very poor and irrational justification, not least because avoiding catching and killing them in the first instance would clearly cost everyone less.
It is also completely contradictory to their current approach – which is to allow for landings of these species well in excess of scientific advice (1705 tonnes of cod in 2021, compared to scientific advice that catch should be 0!) as “bycatch quota”. If the argument is that cod bycatch is too costly to be landed and must therefore be discarded, why are businesses currently landing and selling 700 tonnes of it? 39 boxes of cod were sold at auction on just one last week, fetching £4 a kilo. The “disproportionate cost” argument is simply another convenient veil to shroud further deregulation.
Sadly these concerns are being dismissed as “inaccurate” by the Scottish Government in their response to media attention and justified as “simplifying and improving the application of these exemptions”. The characterisation of this deregulation as a mere ‘simplification’ is deeply misleading.
The Scottish Government is consulting on new plans to legalise the wasteful discarding of fish at sea. These regressive proposals will lead to food waste and stall the recovery of depleted fish populations… https://t.co/D1oT5DhKnf
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) May 27, 2022
Moreover, the existing rules state that the “de minimis exemption” can only be used when it is difficult to avoid catching these fish in the first instance. No proof of this is provided, and in fact, a good amount of research has already gone into identifying areas and times during which bycatch rates are high, and avoiding these areas entirely. Further, potentially promising technology studies have (remarkably) shown that the sound of a Nephrops hitting a net is distinct from that of a fish and that the differentiation can be exploited to ensure that nets only capture the net-colliding Nephrops. The Scottish Government should be investing in such technology not hammering another nail into the fate of our collapsed inshore fish stocks.
The lack of any actual spatial plan for fishing
Currently Scotland’s fisheries are managed as a free-for-all. Bottom trailing and scallop dredging can legally fish across 95% of our inshore seas. Forty years ago, there was a ‘three mile limit’ which meant bottom-trawling was banned within three miles of the shore, safeguarding the coastal seas and allowing lower impact forms of fishing to benefit from it. Since its repeal, larger trawl boats can legally fish right up to the shore. As a result, there have been sustained calls to reintroduce some form of spatial management for many years now.
In 2019 the Scottish Government held a ‘National Discussion on the Future of Fisheries. There was a significant response to this consultation in support of restricting the footprint of scallop dredging and bottom trawling (in particular from coastal waters) and Scottish Government responded by committing in 2019 to “deliver a robust Catching Policy, in partnership with our stakeholders, which links stock management with responsive and proportionate technical and spatial measures” as part of their 2020 – 2030 strategy. However, none have actually made it into the proposed Future Catching Policy.
Whilst this policy has been presented as a suite of technical and spatial measures, the content of the proposals do not include any. Instead they set out a mechanism whereby spatial (or technical) measures may be delivered at some unspecified point in the future. The mechanism devolves decisions on these to a Working Group of the Fisheries Management and Conservation Group, a group which meets sporadically and currently includes five environmental groups (of which we, since the start of year, are now one) but no community representation whatsoever.
Weakening of EU environmental rules
Since the outcome of the EU exit vote, the Scottish Government have repeatedly stated that they will “keep pace with” or exceed European environmental standards and laws.
The 2021-2022 Programme for Government stated
“With a view to re-joining the EU as soon as we are able to, we will preserve Scotland’s good relations with the EU and implement our commitment to align with EU standards and laws, and we will affirm the need for international cooperation to solve global issues.”
However, the Scottish Government’s proposal to legalise discarding is quite clearly a divorce from important EU environmental laws designed to prevent overfishing and other impacts. This is even acknowledged by the proposal itself:
This leap backwards represents a very worrying move and one which could spell yet further deregulation of Scotland’s fisheries. In 2011, 875,000 people supported calls to end the shocking and wasteful practice of discarding; only a big register of public concern is going to stop it again…
What can you do about it?
We strongly disagree with the proposals put forward by the Scottish Government.
If you agree with us then there are two things you can do to help!
- Sign up to the OurSeas.scot coalition to join the call for better protection of our inshore seas! If you represent an organisation, you could consider formally joining the coalition www.ourseas.scot. If you are an individual, please sign the coalition’s petition for better fisheries management.
- Respond to the the Scottish Government’s consultation on the Future Catching Policy, specifically you might want to raise these points.
In answer to question 1:
Q1: Do you agree that the current rules around the landing obligation need to be adjusted, taking into account regional and sectoral variances with a focus on the landing of marketable fish and avoidance of unwanted catch (in particular, juvenile fish) through various spatial and technical measures? Please set out the adjustments that you think need to be made.
The rules banning discarding are sound and needed to prevent overfishing and should be retained.
Fishermen should be incentivised to avoid catching the fish in the first place, including by banning bottom-trawling and dredging in inshore waters where bycatch rates are highest, and that fish quota should be made available to all fishermen to ensure those catching unwanted fish can feasibly land it.
In answer to question 21:
Q21: Do you agree that this [creating working groups within an already closed group] is the best way to make management decisions in a cooperative manner? If not, what would you propose?
The current proposals do not provide any opportunity for communities or the wider public to have a say about how our seas are managed. This is inappropriate and counter to local democracy.
The Scottish Government should enhance local and national fisheries management, and give communities and the wider public more of an opportunity to input to fisheries management.
Q23: Do you have any additional comments to make regarding the Future Catching Policy?
The proposals fail to set out any plans to recover the sea.
They should include a plan to ban scallop dredging and bottom trawling from our inshore seas to recover the depleted fish stocks and degraded health of our marine environment.
[This article was updated on 30th May]