Exemptions – the ‘catch’ behind the discard ban

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Despite the EU discard ban, exemptions let some discards legally continue, e.g. for fisheries targeting langoustine in the North Sea

Throwing unwanted fish overboard is a huge waste of food, reduces fishers’ profits and makes it difficult to limit catches to sustainable levels. Luckily, there’s a law to prevent it.

The EU landing obligation exists to stop fishermen throwing unwanted catch back before they get to shore – a practice known as ‘discarding‘.

But rules often have exceptions and it’s no different with this one. This ‘discard ban’ isn’t actually a blanket ban on all discards. We’re concerned that ‘exemptions’ are being made too readily – and in some cases, wrongly.

We looked at the evidence countries used to justify their exemption requests – requests that the European Commission approved, and are now in force in the final discard plans. And from both a legal and scientific perspective, we think most of these requests should not have been passed.

What’s wrong with these discard ban exemptions?

Exemptions are there to help fishermen cope with the landing obligation, but they can also counteract its main purpose: avoiding catching unwanted fish in the first place. They are meant to be a measure of last resort.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) (of which the discard ban is part) aims to ensure catches are limited to sustainable levels and that fisheries are managed according to scientific advice. Exemptions must not undermine these essential goals.

So, the Commission asked one of their main scientific advisory bodies, the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), to evaluate all exemption requests that come through joint recommendations from the relevant regional Member State groups. They wanted STECF’s scientific opinion on all exemption requests, and particularly wanted to know if the requests were supported by good evidence.

The Commission can approve an exemption if the country requesting it can prove any of the following:

  • The species has a high chance of survival after being discarded
  • It is very difficult to improve the selectivity of the fishing gear for one size or species over others
  • There are disproportionate costs involved in handling unwanted catches of a particular species

Unfortunately, STECF couldn’t judge if any of the exemptions should be granted or not, because the criteria themselves aren’t well defined. They also complained about the quality and extent of some of the supporting evidence.

What needs to change for future discard plans?

Exemptions that lack proper evidence or authorise uncontrolled discards contradict the Common Fisheries Policy’s rules and goals. The Commission has to ensure the legal acts they adopt respect what the CFP sets out to achieve. By granting exemptions that are badly defined or not supported by evidence, the Commission is not doing this.

So, we sent our detailed report and a letter to the Commission to highlight our concerns and recommendations. We hope they can show us how they decided to approve exemptions from the landing obligation in the North Sea and North Western Waters. We want to ensure that unwarranted exemptions are not granted next time it comes to planning for these areas.

This story is far from over. ClientEarth will be watching closely as more stocks are brought under the landing obligation, and more discard plans – possibly including further exemptions – are developed. The Commission will have other opportunities to insist that the right evidence is submitted by Member States, and to deny exemption requests that lack sufficient evidence.

When it comes to the next round of plans, we need to make sure that the exceptions confirm the rule rather than compromise it.

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