Europe’s fishing quotas are designed to protect European waters from over-fishing. They are imperfect instruments, however, and one of their unintended consequences is that they often force fishermen to dump huge amounts of dead, excess fish back into the ocean.
On Tuesday, fishery ministers from EU states met to discuss how to end this practice. EU fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki told ministers that they should phase in a total ban on dumping. Currently, about 1 million metric tonnes of fish are estimated to be thrown back each year into the North Sea alone. That, Damanaki told The Guardian before the meeting, amounts to a “nightmare of discards.”
But when it comes to Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy, nothing comes without controversy. And while most fishermen hate having to throw back dead fish because they either exceed their quotas or are the wrong species, fishermen in some parts of Europe fear that a total ban on dumping will damage their livelihood–by, perhaps, limiting their catches even further, or their time spent at sea.
Scotland is such a place. Referring to an anti-dumping TV campaign launched in Britain by the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishing Federation, called proposals for a blanket ban on dumping “a knee-jerk response to populist TV coverage which has accurately described the problem, but which offers no solutions.”
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Armstrong urged the EU to develop existing schemes to cut discards, such as forcing trawlers to use more selective nets and banning fishing in certain areas.
On Tuesdsay, however, Damanki seemed to dismiss such proposals when she told ministers that “so far we have tried to tackle discards with technical measures. But let’s be honest, if we continue this it is like treating a serious illness with Aspirin. We have to recognize that our policy gives sometimes incentives to discarding. So, I am convinced that we have to start thinking outside the box.” Among her various suggestions was CCTV cameras on board fishing boats.
Ministers hope to agree on new common fisheries policy by 2013. It will be a fierce political battle, with the proud but wounded fishing industries of various European countries vying for their survival. In such a context, even obvious problems with the current system–such as dumping dead fish into the sea in order to meet bureaucratic targets–will be difficult to fix.
(More on Time.com: See photos of the tuna trade)