Tuesday, 21 May 2019



It’s early days for the landing obligation, given the magnitude of the changes involved. Ongoing patience and application will be required to address the many outstanding issues, as the new policy is fully integrated into the fisheries management system. The signs are, however, that the fishing industry is responding to the new incentive; improvements in selectivity and avoidance behaviours are widespread.

The reconvened House of Lords enquiry into the implementation of the landing obligation has focused attention on a number of interrelated questions:

  • Is the new legislation being complied with?
  • Is it reasonable to expect large tonnages of fish, previously discarded, to be landed?
  • Has sufficient weight been given to changes in selectivity and fishing behaviours, prior to and since the full implementation of the landing obligation?
  • What has the effect of the various mitigation measures been?
  • Has the problem of chokes* been dealt with?
  • A little-known NGO called Our Fish, has asserted that an analysis of catch composition of landings into Peterhead implies that large-scale discarding of cod could be read into the landing statistics. Even though this claim was based on a misreading of the catch compositions, the story was picked up by the Independent and echoed round the media for a while.

Many eyes are on our industry.

Retailers and the larger processors, in particular, are concerned about the reputational risk associated with buying fish from fisheries in which they cannot be sure that there is not continued discarding of quota species.

Compliance: Risk factors

We have known, from the outset, that monitoring the landings obligation across many thousands of vessels, operating at sea, would present a monumental challenge. Whilst some management authorities have said that the discard ban is, in effect, unenforceable, industry bodies, including the NFFO have pointed to Norway, where industry support for their form of a discard ban, well integrated into their management system, has been a major factor in its success.

The actual risk of illegal discarding of quota species is likely to vary by gear type, area of operation, mix of species encountered, access to quota and degree of choke risk, as well as skippers’ mind-set. In turn, choke risks will reflect the degree to which fishing opportunities have been set taking into account mixed fishery factors.

The scale of the challenge involved in monitoring and enforcing the landing obligation on many thousands of vessels operating across many different fisheries, has led some to consider that remote electronic monitoring (REM) provides a panacea. It does not.

Remote monitoring will have a role to play in some fisheries but as a recent conference organised by the Danish Government illustrated very well, the use of CCTV cameras, and other forms of remote surveillance, only really work when cameras, or the like, are invited on board vessels in order to better to demonstrate compliance. In other words, the use of cameras as a top-down big-brother panacea is unlikely to provide a solution for a series of practical, legal and ethical reasons. But in the right context, and within a collaborative system of co-management, REM can play a role and undoubtedly has a future. A considered and proportionate approach is required.

Industry Response

What has been the fishing industry’s response to the introduction of the new rules?

Although it is true that some of the more arcane aspects of the exemptions are not fully or widely understood, the signs are that there is broad awareness across the industry of the significance of the landing obligation. As a result, skippers feel under considerable pressure, and have felt for some years, to reduce unwanted catch. This has intensified changes in gear selectivity and fishing behaviours including:

  • Increased mesh size in use
  • Changes in gear geometry to increase selectivity
  • Changes in fishing behaviours
  • Movement away from areas in which there is increased risk of unwanted catch
  • Increased efforts to source relevant quota
  • In parallel, there has been encouragement by industry organisations for vessels to carry Cefas observers to demonstrate compliance. Some vessel operators, including the majority of the English North Sea whitefish fleet, have agreed to continue a trial system in which carry CCTV cameras to document catches.

It is important to remember that the overall purpose of the landing obligation is not to replace discarding large amounts of fish at sea, with landing equally large quantities of fish into the ports for low-value fishmeal. The purpose is to create an incentive to encourage vessels to find ways of reducing unwanted catch.

Landing fish previously discarded at sea, to see them reduced to low-value fishmeal, with associated financial and environmental costs, would be irrational at multiple levels. If done at scale, it would create a different kind of public scandal.

Small amounts of previously discarded fish can find its way into the market for bait in the various pot fisheries.

Continuity and Progress

Improved selectivity and avoidance didn’t begin with the landing obligation and will not end with its implementation. Improvement in selectivity is and has been an ongoing process.

Excluding fish below minimum size has been achieved in many fisheries. Selection by species presents more of a challenge. In mixed fisheries selectivity tends to be limited by the different body size/shape of the different species, although progress can be made by focussing on different species behaviours. The latest experiments and trials focus on the use of light and knowledge of different fish behaviours to achieve desired species separation.

In the North Sea ground-fish fisheries, ICES data shows that discards were reduced by 90% in the 20 years before the landing obligation came along.

A significant part of this reduction was due to changes in the selectivity profile of fishing gears and changes in fishing practices to eliminate fish below minimum landing size. The introduction of square mesh panels and, often voluntary, increased mesh size in particular played a role.

Likewise, in the ultra-mixed demersal fishery in the Celtic Sea, increased mesh size, avoiding fishing in haddock-rich areas at night has had a major effect on discard rates.

Highly selective gear adjusted to local conditions have, similarly, been developed in the Irish Sea and the North Sea nephrops fisheries. The gear selectivity project in Northern Ireland – where whiting bycatch is a particular challenge - is one of many initiatives across the UK, and indeed Europe. In the Northern Irish example, £750,000 has been spent on gear trials and scientific analysis to help fleets adapt to the landing obligation. Solutions have been found that work for some parts of the fleet and work is ongoing on others

Nearly every fishery has a similar positive story to tell.

Mitigation Measures

Although some of the choke mitigation measures permitted under Article 15 of the CFP Regulation, for example inter-species flexibility, have been more or less inoperable, other, more useful approaches have been developed. These have been critical in avoiding chokes in the first half of 2019. Mitigation measures adopted include:

  • De minimis exemptions - used where scope for selectivity improvements is limited, or costs are disproportionate. The exemptions, which permit a limited amount (max 7%) of continued discarding of the species concerned, vary in scale, location and gear-type
  • High Survival Exemptions – apply to stocks where the evidence suggests high levels of survival after return to the sea. Some high survival exemptions are time-limited and conditional. The exemptions for plaice and skates and rays are particularly significant
  • TAC Setting: choke risks can be reduced by an intelligent approach to setting TACs in mixed fisheries. The EU, working with ICES, has developed the concept of fishing mortality ranges, which allow fisheries managers a degree of flexibility in balancing competing priorities, including choke avoidance
  • TAC removal – where the TAC served no purpose and posed a major choke risk (Dab and Flounder)
  • Seabass, a species under a different form of catch limit, have been excluded from the landing obligation, avoiding the spectacle of tonnes of high value bass going for fishmeal
  • TAC uplifts to cover preciously discarded fish – time will tell whether these have been calculated correctly, given the patchy data on which they are based
  • A new innovation of bycatch quotas, adopted at the December Council, in which some quota is pooled to allow access for member states who have zero quotas of some species
  • New ways of dealing with zero catch advice in mixed fisheries, which involve TAC increases along with bycatch reduction initiatives
  • Exemptions are agreed each year as part of joint recommendations prepared by member states working together regionally and submitted to the Commission for approval. The Joint Recommendations being prepared by member states for the discard plans in 2020, amount to over 50 pages of scientific justification for the proposed de minimis and high survival exemptions. The scientific recommendations pass through a system of quality control by the Scientific Technical and Economic Committee (STECF).

Other useful flexibilities, not yet available are under development. One of the most promising of these could help to minimise chokes, by authorising landings of amounts of unavoidable bycatch, when a quota is exhausted and a choke situation arises. In these circumstances, the fish would be sold on the human consumption market instead of going for fishmeal but vessels would not receive the full value of the catch, removing any incentive to target these species. This approach is so far precluded by the CFP. There is provision however, for this approach in the Fisheries Bill now passing through Parliament and would be available to UK vessels after the UK industry is free of the Common Fisheries Policy and any transition period.

In summary, mitigation measures have been adopted and have been absolutely essential to ease the introduction of the new policy. And to the avoidance of chokes - so far.

Quota Swaps

The jury is still out on whether the established system of quota swaps and transfers, along with limited top-slicing and redistribution, will be sufficient to avoid category 2 chokes (where there is sufficient in the system but it’s in the wrong place to prevent a choke developing). Historically, the market has proved more adept at moving unutilised quota to where it is needed, whilst avoiding unintended consequences, by comparison with administrative decisions made at the centre of government.

The obvious answer to easing this type of choke risks in many of our fisheries lies in fairer UK allocations as the UK renegotiates its national shares, when it becomes an independent coastal state. Pending that rebalancing and readjustment, mechanisms will be necessary to move quota to where it is needed.

Rocketing lease and purchase prices for potential choke risk quotas in the first half of this year, are strongly indicative of the industry’s efforts to locate quota to cover the totality their catches and to avoid chokes.

Marine Stewardship Council

Many parts of the fishing industry are heavily engaged with the Marine Stewardship Council process across a range of species. Satisfying the overarching principles of MSC (particularly Principle 1 - Species, and Principle 3 - Management Systems) will facilitate deeper congruity between the objectives of the landing obligation and MSC certification.


Approaching the end of the first 6 months of the full implementation of the landing obligation, it’s possible to make some preliminary observations:

  • The landing obligation is the biggest change to the management system since quotas were introduced in 1983
  • The EU opted for a big-bang approach rather than the Norwegian species -by-species incremental approach
  • The design of the legislation introducing the landing obligation was sub-optimal, reflecting a dysfunctional decision-making process for the management of in European fisheries
  • The signs are that the fishing industry is responding to the new incentive to reduce unwanted catch; this is easier in some fisheries than others
  • It makes no financial or environmental sense to land large amounts of unwanted catch which go for fishmeal. The focus of the landing obligation is and should remain the reduction of unwanted catch through avoidance and selectivity
  • Mitigation measures have been absolutely critical in keeping the problem of chokes at bay; the second half of this year is likely to clarify whether enough has been done in this respect
  • Access to quota is of extreme relevance in avoiding chokes; the mechanisms, international and national, for moving unutilised quota are being kept under review
  • Responsibilities and Cooperation

Those who are being regulated, and those with responsibility for fisheries regulation, have a duty to continue to work together to overcome the not insubstantial implementation problems ahead. Such an enormous change takes time to adapt and to work through the issues as they arise. All those involved, including those throughout the supply chain, have a duty of care to those at the sharp end, as well as a responsibility to maintain momentum towards a workable landing obligation. In turn, the catching sector has a responsibility to demonstrate that it is adapting to the new regime.

Whatever the shortcomings of the EU landings obligation and the way it came about, there is genuine public concern about the waste involved in large scale discards and the catching sector has to demonstrate that it is doing its part. Even though it is early days and there remain many problems to resolve, the signs are that the fishing industry is facing up to that responsibility.


Ours is a complex, diverse, industry. There may be pockets of vessel operators who think that, even having accepted the quota uplifts associated with the landing obligation, they can carry on as they did in the past, by discarding unwanted catch. If such a minority exists, they are delusional and dangerous. Dangerous because carrying on as usual can only have one outcome – stock assessments that indicate increased fishing mortality, followed, as night follows day, by reductions in TACs. Delusional because, although few in number, they are in denial. This is a boomerang that will return very quickly. It will equally affect everyone: those who carry on business as usual, as well as those who make every attempt to reduce their unwanted catch.

Conclusions and Future

Given the scale of the changes involved, and taking into account flaws in the legislation, after six months, it is possible to say that the central purpose of the landing obligation – to incentivise reduction of unwanted catch of quota species is having an effect. Fishing vessels across the fleets are continuing to adapt their gears and fishing behaviours. The mitigation measures were still being shaped at the 11th hour, but they have been absolutely critical in dealing with some of the undesirable side effects of the landing obligation – most notably chokes in mixed fisheries. The second half of 2019 will inform us if enough has been done.

The key to dealing with the residual problem areas and maintaining momentum towards a workable and effective landing obligation, lies in a collaborative approach in which fisheries managers, the fishing industry and the whole supply chain, continue to work together to understand and deal with the issues as they arise.

A working group has been established to build a picture of how the industry is adapting to the landing obligation. The industry led group with Defra and MMO support, will:

  • Discuss and develop landing obligation initiatives such as Bycatch Reduction Plans (BCRPs), Fully Documented Fisheries (FDF) schemes and available CFP flexibilities;
  • Monitor the use of existing flexibilities and exemptions;
  • Discuss and develop future policy initiatives to continue reducing unwanted bycatch post-Brexit;
  • Assess upcoming choke risks and mitigation measures;
  • Identify and plan regional focus groups to work on the detail of the above points.
  • In parallel, an ongoing dialogue, between retailers, processors/buyers, the catching sector and Defra aims to keep everyone in the supply chain involved in identifying issues and working on solutions.

It is well understood that if we were doing all this again, we wouldn’t start with article 15 of EU Regulation 1380/13. We would take a different approach that would avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls. Given where we are, however, the most constructive approach is to work collaboratively and systematically.

In Europe, the advisory councils have begun to review how the legislation could be improved, conscious that the Commission will soon begin work on the next CFP reform. In the UK, the discussion also embraces what changes could be available when the UK has regulatory autonomy to design its own solutions.

In the meantime, we will deal with the issues as they arise in a pragmatic, proportionate and constructive way, conscious that discard policy is important but must fit into an overall management system which promotes sustainable fishing and supports fishing businesses and communities.

It is important that the landing obligation is aligned with the other elements of fisheries policy in a coherent and integrated whole. TAC setting rules, technical measures, financial support mechanisms, and control rules should all fit together (or at least not conflict). The Common Fisheries Policy is not yet at that stage. Without a coherent approach, life is made very difficult on the deck and in the wheelhouse.

Dealing collaboratively with the adversities generated by a flawed piece of legislation may yet, however, prove to be the vehicle for new forms of co-management.

*A choke occurs in a mixed fishery, when exhaustion of one quota would mean a vessel or fleet would have to tie up for the rest of the year, losing the economic benefit of its main fishing opportunities.

Full story courtesy of the NFFO.