Grant Course: Casting ideas for the future of fishing

Electronic monitoring could help solve fish discard problems, says Grant Course
Fishing at sea. Photo: David Cheskin/PA WireFishing at sea. Photo: David Cheskin/PA Wire
Fishing at sea. Photo: David Cheskin/PA Wire

The Europe-wide landing obligation, or discard ban, that requires fishermen to land all commercial fish species caught, was introduced at the start of 2015 for pelagic species and will be extended to other species over the next five years.

This approach to tackling the widespread problem of fish discards wasn’t widely welcomed by the fishing industry but most knew that something needed to change.

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Having managed the English discard monitoring programme for more than ten years and witnessed tens of thousands of perfectly edible fish being thrown back into the sea dead and dying, I would have to agree.

Before discard monitoring programmes no-one really knew how many fish were thrown back, but this research allowed the problem to be quantified. Once a problem is quantified, you can then attempt to reduce or remove it, which is what the landing obligation hopes to do.

In 2010 an initiative called the UK Catch Quota Trials commenced whereby fishermen were asked to self-report all discard catches and bring them ashore to be counted against quota. Cynics would say that “fishermen will bring a few in and discard the rest”. However by introducing electronic monitoring and CCTV to fishing vessels this allowed the performance of the participating vessels to be witnessed on all fishing trips.

To the surprise of some, fishermen accepted the “rules” of the project and welcomed the electronic monitoring systems aboard. They were enthusiastic in their participation and were willing to try different techniques to reduce discards and help managers plan for the impending landing obligation. Fishermen don’t like seeing tomorrow’s fish being thrown back dead today, and being forced to do so is disheartening.

Fishermen want to preserve their industry and they want to provide a future for their children. Managers want this too and the Scottish Government has commissioned innovative studies to explore the effects of the landing obligation. They have also invested money into investigating how better scientific data can be collected.

Fishing industry leaders want to see the discard ban work but know that to do this it needs to be on a level playing field and with some flexibilities. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like WWF are working with government and industry alike to help identify and support solutions.

So does electronic monitoring and technology work on small inshore vessels to gather scientific data? Having spent the last year counting and sexing crabs as they fly through the air and using Bluetooth technology to send length data from a vessel to my email inbox the same day, I would have to say a resounding “yes”. It’s used effectively in many countries elsewhere so why not here across Europe? It may be a bold step but we need to ask ourselves if not electronic monitoring and cameras, how else can activities at sea be monitored to support fisheries management and ensure fairness for all fishermen?

Grant Course is the author of a forthcoming report on electronic monitoring commissioned by WWF