How can science help to implement the Landing Obligation?

Published on March 13, 2017

As part of the DiscardLess, a project providing advice on the landing obligation (LO), a conference was held in association with the FAO to discuss the role of science. Strategies outlining tactical and technical solutions to minimise unwanted catches were presented as well as experiences from other countries that have implemented discard bans

DiscardLess is a four year science-led project that aims to provide strategies for the gradual elimination of discards in European fisheries. To mark the half way point in the project a stakeholder conference was held at the FAO to discuss “working together to increase knowledge about discards and about the strategies to reduce them”.

The FAO have been working on combatting discards for several decades and have the position that discarding is a waste of food and should be avoided as much as possible. They have conducted two global analyses of marine catches and discards, most recently by Kelleher in 2005 when they estimated that 8% of global catches were discarded, in terms of biomass, with the figure for individuals significantly higher.

In 2015 the EU began to phase in the landing obligation which legislated that all catches for quota species, unless specifically exempted or under a 5% de minimis threshold, must be landed. Much can be learnt from other regions such as Norway, Iceland and India that have had discard bans in place for several decades.

The DiscardLess project is providing advice and tools to fishery managers and fishermen in order to help with the transition to discard free EU fisheries. Through compiling information they help to provide solutions such as bycatch avoidance, onboard handling and control, and the utilisation of previously discarded fish.

Much can be done through technical and tactical choices in order for unwanted catches to be reduced. To this end DiscardLess have compiled analyses of different gears and are developing maps to identify areas where unwanted catches are highest. Through this type of information dissemination better decisions can be taken on the water.

One of the objectives of the LO was that it would help to provide better data and a more complete picture of fishing and catches. However, of concern was that several scientists stated that they are getting less observer data since the policy was introduced. Scientists have been refused onboard vessels and there is a notable sampling bias between catches and discard rates recorded by fishermen and those from observers. Calls were made to control agencies and Member States to make last haul analyses publicly available.

DiscardLess organiser Clara Ulrich, also head of the STECF, argued for caution regarding exemptions. Often escaped and released fish swim away unharmed but subsequently die days or weeks later, therefore exemptions will likely lead to a higher F and make compliance with the MSY objective of the Common Fisheries Policy more difficult. Better data and a fully controlled LO will allow for more accurate MSY estimates to be developed, which with rebuilt stocks would often result in higher quotas.

The market aspects of the landing obligation were also explored. The price of fishmeal has steadily risen over the past two decades thereby providing more of an incentive for all catches to be landed.

In the EU, the Baltic Sea was first to implement the landing obligation for all commercial stocks. Moreover, the relatively simple species composition and lack of choke species meant that it would be more straightforward than other areas in the EU.

However, concerns were raised that there has been no change of behaviour in fishing pratices, with Member States seemingly reluctant to control and enforce the landing obligation. One solution not yet explored is for quota to be reallocated to more selective fishers who comply with the landing obligation.

Overall there are many reasons to be positive. Discards both in the EU and globally are reducing. Steps are being taken to improve selectivity, with there representative from Europêche outlining this as a priority. While the North Sea presents a difficult challenge for managers, with most stocks falling under the LO in 2019, there are already sufficient tools and knowledge in place to fully implement and control the LO in the Baltic and Mediterranean.