Changing gear – new solutions to the discard ban

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The fishing industry can take advantage of a wide range of selective fishing gear to help the right fish slip through the net

To end overfishing, we have to stop catching too many fish, and throwing the dead and dying ones back. Is there a way to do it? A course I attended recently, organised by UK fishing industry authority Seafish, convinced me that innovations in selective fishing gear are the way forward.

The ’discard ban’ is the EU’s best shot so far at eliminating the wasteful practice of discarding. But reducing unwanted catches is not a piece of (fish)cake for fishers. So they increasingly place their hope in generous use of flexibilities and exemptions from the law.

But finding ways to work around the rules will not deliver the discard ban’s main objective: to avoid unwanted catches in the first place.

Luckily, increasingly selective fishing gear is a promising alternative. We just have to make sure fishers know about them – and that the law and financial concerns don’t stand in the way.

“My main take home message? More selective fishing gear can turn the discard ban from a daunting issue into a manageable one”

Learning about selective fishing gear

If two days looking at miniature fishing gear sounds uninspiring to you, you are wrong! Not only did I get a better understanding of the challenges the fishing industry is facing, but I left feeling quite positive about their future under the discard ban.

My main take home message: more selective fishing gear can turn the discard ban from a daunting issue into a manageable one.

A whole new world of selective gear – from simple to sophisticated

The possibilities for more selective fishing range from simple modifications to more sophisticated solutions. Yet, they all share the same principle: by using the different size, shape and escape behaviour of fish, you can catch the ones you want, and help the others escape.

To find out how the various methods work, and for some helpful videos, you can take a look at the Seafish gear database.

Of course, all options need reality testing, and it is important to release unwanted fish unharmed. But innovation seems to hold the solution for most problems, and some fisheries are already successfully applying them.

Where’s the catch and how do we deal with it?

So we’ve got the gear – what’s left to worry about? The course gave three reasons why fishers are still worried about the discard ban:

  • Money: Economic concerns, including the costs of changing to more selective gear
  • Knowledge: Lack of awareness among fishers of the available options
  • Law: Legal barriers to switching to more selective gears

However, these problems must, and can, be solved.

“if we’re clear about the problems, tailored solutions are not far off”

Listening to the needs of fisheries is key throughout this process. For example, I can see why fishers were initially sceptical about the monsters of steel that selectivity grids, used to sort wanted from unwanted fish, used to be. They were great for letting small fish escape, but were also bulky and dangerous to handle on board. So gear specialists developed lighter and more flexible plastic grids that are much easier to use – and are a lot more popular as a result. This shows that if we’re clear about the problems, tailored solutions are not far off.

We need to make sure the law is on the side of innovation

Our fisheries team is keeping a particularly watchful eye on the legal aspect. There are rules governing when, where, and crucially, how, fishers can catch fish. Sometimes these rules, called technical measures, don’t allow fishers to use more selective gear, making it harder for them to meet their obligations under the discard ban.

The European Commission has just released a proposal for a new Technical Measures Framework to review these rules. This new framework has the potential to make or break the industry that is trying to adapt to the discard ban. Over the coming months as this proposal works its way through Brussels, we will be doing our best to ensure the new system makes it easier for fishers to use these more selective options, while also maintaining appropriate environmental protection.

To end overfishing, it is vital that selective gear is encouraged, and that the rules allow fishers to use the best available options. The discard ban can only keep its promise of minimising unwanted catches if unwanted fish are allowed to slip through the net.

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