Discards destroying sea life and industry
Common Fisheries Policy reforms will bring major improvements, but will not come into force for at least 18 months – explains Ian Hudghton MEP
On March 1, Europe's Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki held a high-level meeting on the controversial topic of fish discards. The practice of throwing perfectly marketable fish back into the sea is, in the commissioner's own words, "unethical, a waste of natural resources and a waste of fishermen's effort".
The commission's belated recognition of the problem is welcome, but the issue of discards is anything but new. Environmental groups have, for years, campaigned on the issue and, perhaps, more importantly - fishermen themselves hate having to dump perfectly good catch over the side. They recognise that fisheries resources are finite and can be fragile - and, from an economic point of view, throwing fish away amounts to throwing hard cash into the deep blue sea.
Discards do not arise, therefore, because fishermen choose to be "unethical"; they arise as a direct result of the failed Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union. And as we eagerly await proposals for a reformed CFP, the European Commission's recognition of both the failure of the policy and the obscenity of discards is to be applauded. We may finally have a commission, which is intent on changing the bad old ways of how things are done. Or do we?
A commission proposal on "transitional technical measures" is currently progressing its way through the European Parliament. These measures were initially drawn up in 2009 - in the days before the commission was so concerned about the "waste of natural resources". Intended as temporary, emergency rules - the measures were intended to be in force from January 2010, to June 2011. The commission is currently seeking to extend these measures by a further 18 months, until the start of 2013. The transition seems to be taking somewhat longer than anticipated.
The problem - and indeed the scandal - lies in the fact that these very measures are forcing fishermen to discard huge quantities of fish. The rules are complex and inflexible, but it is generally acknowledged that they are a cause - not a cure - for the issue of discarding. Extending the shelf life by 18 months simply means another year and a half of natural resources being wasted.
Commissioner Damanaki has promised that her reforms will move decision-making away from the centre in Brussels and back to fishing nations and maritime regions. But the sad reality is that the commission is not listening. In the EP's Fisheries Committee, a number of amendments were tabled by MEPs from Scotland, Ireland and Portugal. The changes sought to improve the rules by helping the fishing industry and, crucially, avoiding discards.
The Scottish Government gave backing to the amendments, aimed at helping the inshore fishing fleet and encouraging scallop fishermen - two sectors responsible for little in the way of discards. They also supported more flexibility for the white fish fleet in order to avoid throwing fish back over the side. This even won the backing of the UK government, which has not always been noted for its support of the fishing industry.
The industry itself has been campaigning hard to amend the rules and these are the people who understand the issue. The commission, though, is not for turning. No amendments can be accepted, nothing can be changed and the obscenity must continue for another 18 months. The EP votes on the package on April 6. Once again, amendments will be tabled seeking to improve the rules. Parliament has the opportunity to flex its newly gained co-decision powers over fisheries.
Commissioner Damanaki has been a breath of fresh air. Her apparent commitment to de-centralising fisheries management must be supported all the way. Her recognition of the CFP's failings is honest. And her condemnation of the discarding of fish is a positive base to build upon in the future.
But the future starts today, not 18 months down the line. Scottish fishermen have won plaudits from conservation groups for experimenting with a system known as "real time closures"; it's a pity the commission too does not operate in real time. It's also a shame that, despite Damanaki's strong words on discards, the commission seems to have failed the very first test of radical reform.
Ian Hudghton MEP is president of the Scottish National Party and a member of the European Parliament's Fisheries Committee
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