The EU says it is committed to ending overfishing. DW visited a thriving fishing community in Cornwall where new regulations on fishing practices are being seen as a way to safeguard the future.
Beam trawlers, long liners and small open boats used for hand-lining mackerel bob on the water in Newlyn, a fishing port in Cornwall, England. The smell of sea salt hangs in the air. A fish market near the harbor has just closed and men in yellow boots scrub away fish guts.
"For every fisherman that goes to sea, there's seven people who work on shore to help support the industry," one fisherman told DW. "It's vital. It's what Newlyn is."
Newlyn is home to one of the largest fishing fleets in Britain and contributes millions of pounds to the local economy each year. But to keep profits up, crews sort the fish before returning to shore. Lower value fish gets tossed back into the water, even though it is already dead.
How discarding works
In the EU, fish that are discarded do not have to be counted against quotas. Conservation groups say two-thirds of fish captured in European waters are thrown back dead into the sea. They blame the EU's common fisheries policy, under which fleets are awarded a quota for each species they may catch. When fishing crews catch more than their quota allows, they throw the excess back.
The practice of discarding edible fish results in the waste of more than a million tons of fish in the EU each year. The fish may be of a size or species that commands too low a price on the market. Fishing crews sometimes toss fish back into the water because they have slime or abrasions that could cause damage the rest of the fish in the haul. Sometimes, there is simply a lack of space on board and target species take precedence over lower value or non-target species.
Discarding is widely considered to be unethical and a waste of resources. Following marathon talks in Luxembourg earlier this month, the European Commission drafted a compromise agreement to phase-in a ban on discards from 2014.
A big step forward
The fishing communities in Newlyn have welcomed the ban. "I think the council of ministers' meeting in June actually has taken a big step forward in reducing and possibly eliminating discards," said Paul Trebilcock, who heads the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation.
The new agreement states that discards of mackerel and herring are likely to be banned from 2014. For popular fish such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole, the ban could be phased in from 2015 but not in operation before 2018.
Critics say the ban is too weak to save European fish stocks. But Trebilcock disagrees. "It's probably a little bit alarmist to talk about species being wiped out," he told DW. "Things are actually improving in most stocks that are fished in Europe under the current regime."
Safeguarding the future
Tom McClure has been a trawlerman in Newlyn's waters for almost three decades. He explained that throwing fish back into water isn't something he feels good about, but called it a market decision.
"At the end of the day you are here to make money," said McClure. "When you get a haul and a proportion of that is small fish you are going to throw them back to keep the bigger stuff. It's sheer nature of economics. We do discard some haddock because of the sheer volume of haddock that's about and our quotas have not yet kept pace with it."
McClure said he tries to throw back smaller fish immediately after pulling up his nets, in order to keep them alive. But, while he tries to prevent unnecessary deaths, he isn't entirely convinced that all fish stocks here are under pressure.
"It's absolute rubbish. There's more cod in the sea than there has ever been," he said. But he admitted that the problem is more severe in other regions. "They've got real problems in the North Sea and on the north coast of Cornwall."
He acknowledged that other countries are facing fish stock instability. Scientists say 80 percent of Mediterranean stocks are overfished, which means fish cannot reproduce quickly enough.
Researchers are scrambling to provide more information on Europe's stocks, so that policymakers can get to work on setting new quotas. Robin J. Turner is an international fish merchant and wholesaler in Newlyn. He said legislation designed by politicians often fails to reflect the realities faced by fishing communities.
"There are two forms of legislation that affect the fishing industry directly. One is paper legislation," he said. "The second is natural legislation, which is wind and tide. On a day like today we are looking at a very windy day. The whole of the fleet are in and nobody is fishing. That's natural legislation. The sea is not being harvested at all by us today."
He explained that current quotas and regulations don't take into account lost days.
Better research needed
There are fishing crews in Newlyn that are already changing their practices. Some are using updated equipment, like nets with increased mesh size that allow smaller fish to escape. Others are avoiding areas where unwanted catches are likely to occur.
Fish merchant Turner said the discard is something almost everyone in the industry here can agree on. "We don't want to throw our resource back in the sea dead and wasted," he said. But he warned that reliable information about the state of European stocks is needed to make the ban work. "We also want to ...have accurate data about how much fish we are catching, so we can accurately manage our industry for the future."
There remain wide divisions between countries about how effective the ban will be. The Netherlands and Sweden said the ban failed to effectively protect the oceans while Malta, Portugal and Slovenia said it was too pro-environmental. Here in Britain, policymakers generally view the compromise as a step towards a sustainable future.
Author: Rebecca Novell
Editor: Saroja Coelho