An outright ban on discards would be emotionally-charged madness

(Before I start: I’m a lefty. I’m an environmentalist. I work in the fishery management industry. I say these things to clarify that my opinions below are not political, and they’re not based on some inherent distrust of anything ‘leftist’ or ‘environmental’. My opinions below are based on a solid belief that whatever the weaknesses of the environmental sciences, they are the best tool we have for managing our exploitation of natural resources. Fishery management has a range of aims, but personally I put ecological sustainability first. Read on, then, knowing that I’m not a right-wing or fishing industry stooge, but that I actually want the same thing that Hugh and his supporters claim to want – a better future for European fish populations)

Back in March I wrote a rather negative piece about Hugh’s Fish Fight, and how disappointed I was to see liberal emotions manipulated with evidence-free propaganda. At the time I barely touched upon the possible problems a ban on discards could cause, essentially sitting on the fence by saying:

Now, I’m not trying to argue here against a discards ban in principal. Norway banned discards in 1987 and it seems to be working quite well – although it also seems to take considerably more micro-management of fishing vessels. No, what I’m trying to say is that the situation is far more complicated than Hugh, and the Guardian, are making out. Banning discards isn’t something which can, or should, happen overnight – it needs to be introduced, if at all, alongside a complete overhaul of the European fisheries management system.

The FishFight website includes a page titled ‘solutions‘, which states:

Hugh’s fish fight is not trying to dictate the exact solutions politicians should choose – simply to ensure that whatever their choice for 2012, the prevention of discarding should be a top priority.

The thing is, there’s no evidence presented anywhere that a ban on discards would achieve anything other than reducing waste. The website, at least, makes no argument that such a ban would improve sustainability – and although I believe there *is* and argument to be made, it’s certainly not clear-cut. The FishFight campaign is based on an assumption that banning discards would be beneficial for (or at least have no impact on) fish stocks. THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY TRUE.

In large part, it depends on what the alternative is. Clearly, comparing the current system to one where fishermen catch and land whatever they want would see the current system come out on top in terms of sustainability. Conversely, it’s entirely possible that there could be a management system involving a discard ban which would lead to more sustainably exploited stocks than at present. My point is that we just don’t know. Banning discards outright just doesn’t make sense unless you have a detailed, viable alternative management system in mind. In my opinion, the best system would be one where discards are more thoroughly monitored, factored into stock assessment science, and vessels who discard more than is deemed acceptable are fined. Whether this is possible given the additional manpower requirements I don’t know, but it’s a potentially far more sustainable model than at present and it retains discarding. Note too that this is my opinion; I don’t know for sure whether this would be the best approach, so it would be crazy for me to demand it be adopted without study.

To ban discards without first developing an alternative management plan would be to pander to environmentalist sensibilities without considering the actual long-term goals of fishery management. Badly implemented, a discard ban could be catastrophic for EU fish stocks, and there is no guarantee that it will be better for stocks even if it’s well-implemented. A recent Guardian article quotes from a proposed EU declaration:

The declaration’s signatories “restate their commitment to an ambitious reform of the common fisheries policy, [and] reiterate their view that the wasteful practice of discarding fish, that is tolerated and in some cases even promoted by the current management system, constitutes a considerable obstacle on the road to a sustainable fisheries policy”.

But it adds: “[We] consider a discard ban as proposed in the draft basic regulation of the future common fisheries policy … is unrealistic and too prescriptive, and a pragmatic approach is needed especially in the context of mixed fisheries, particularly in the Mediterranean [and] support instead the inclusion of a significant reduction of discards … on a fisheries-based approach.”

Now, I’m not so naive that I think the proposing nations’ fishing industries have nothing to do with this. I know there are a lot of people who want to maintain the status quo so that they can discard lower-value catch and improve profits. But taken at face value, the declaration has a point: an outright ban is  too prescriptive. It’s taking a powerful management option off the table for emotional reasons. Working towards a management system which minimises or even eliminates discarding is a fine aim, but only as part of a suite of objectives which include stock, ecological and economic sustainability.

To re-iterate what I said in my previous post: I’m not pro-discards. I’m not against public pressure to minimise discards. I am simply arguing that making fishery management decisions based on public emotions is madness. I can’t say enough that banning discards will not necessarily be better for fish stocks. The system needs overhauling, yes, and ideally the new approach would not allow any discarding. But surely if there is a more reliable, sustainable, workable approach which does allow discards we should be aiming for that?

I honestly think it would be crazy to ban discarding outright. The FishFight petition has 800,000 signatories so far, including many celebrities, but if they get their way they might well regret it in ten years time. If only they were campaigning for the mandatory adoption of scientific advice in fishery management – that’s something I could get behind. Exploiting liberal anger to the possible detriment of fish stocks (and therefore also the entire fishing industry) is something I can’t.

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