The European Commission has presented an action plan to tackle the main causes of discarding unwanted fish overboard.

Discarding is a characteristic of many fisheries, particularly mixed fisheries.

Franz Fischler, commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, commented: “This practice is even more difficult to justify when so many of our stocks are depleting. The cod crisis illustrates how important it is to tackle discards and protect young fish. This requires action on several fronts. We are proposing measures to prevent catches of unwanted fish and to remove incentives for discarding.”

In consultation with fishermen and member states, the Commission wants to opt for a mix of measures, such as reducing the fishing effort, using more selective nets to prevent the capture of young fish, or real time closures of areas, where dense concentrations of young fish occur. This action plan will be presented to the Council of Fisheries Ministers at its meeting on 27 November. It forms part of a series of proposals and action plans presented by the Commission on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy; the first package was issued last May.

Measures proposed

As depleted stocks consist predominantly of young fish, catches are mainly made up of small fish. It is therefore crucial to reduce fishing effort on such stocks and to apply appropriate technical measures to leave them in the sea to grow and replenish stocks.

Reducing fishing effort

The Commission has already proposed measures to use fishing effort limitations as a key element in fisheries management: first, in the framework of the recovery plan for cod and hake tabled a year ago and as part of multi-annual management plans in its proposals for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy issued last May.

Technical measures

To prevent the capture of young fish that make up the majority of discards, action is proposed on:

  • The structure of nets: a range of selectivity measures are foreseen which, in many cases, will build on existing measures which have allowed progress in increasing selectivity. To achieve this, the Commission proposes more research as well as consultation with the industry, scientists and national authorities.

  • Minimum landing sizes (MLS): appropriate changes in MLS will be considered by the Commission when proposing measures to increase the selectivity of fishing gears to ensure consistency between the two. Otherwise, undersized fish are caught and must be discarded.

  • Catch composition: in relation to defined mesh size: the rules on catch composition which lead to compulsory discarding will be reviewed.

  • Closed areas and real-time closure: the Commission will examine derogations on access to existing closed areas and consider establishing or extending such areas. It also urges the Council to decide on its proposal on the cod and hake recovery plan which includes provisions for real-time closures where dense concentrations of young fish occur.

Establish a discard ban

In consultation with the Member States and the sector, the Commission will examine all aspects of a ban on discards which it may consider proposing in 2005 for implementation in 2006. It will also consult Norway where such a ban has been in force for a number of years. Fully conscious of the advantages and drawbacks of a ban, the Commission intends to put in place pilot projects in which all potential discards are returned to port.

Leaving fishing grounds

The Commission will ask the fishing industry to include in the Code of Conduct that it is currently drafting a commitment by fishermen to depart from fishing grounds where high quantities of small fish are caught.

Making better use of low-value fish

The Commission wants to investigate the potential use of discarded fish for direct and indirect human consumption along with possible consequences for the conservation of the species concerned.

Other measures

In consultation with Member States, the Commission will examine the possibility of reducing discards due to exhausted quotas by, among other things, establishing by-catch quotas or setting multi-species TACs. Also foreseen are pilot projects with financial incentives for fishermen’s participation in fishing trips with observers on board to examine the selectivity of fishing gears and the composition and volume of potential discards. The Commission will also strengthen the monitoring of discard levels and extend it to fisheries not yet covered.


The quantities of discards vary across fisheries but extrapolations would seem to indicate that these quantities are considerable. They occur for a number of legislative and economic reasons. The former includes the need to discard undersized fish or catches in excess of quotas to respect existing rules while the latter relates to discarding of fish with low or zero commercial value.

Discarding has a negative impact in conservation, economic and scientific terms. In most cases, discarded fish are dead or moribund. The discarding of immature fish represents a loss of growth potential and reduces the potential yield from a fishery. In the long run, if the fish stock cannot replenish itself, there is a risk that profits will be lost for ever. Discarding also means that a large proportion of the catch is hidden from scientists, making scientific assessments of fishing mortality more difficult and the prediction of future catches less certain.

The Commission proposes a three-year timetable for the implementation of this Action Plan which can be accessed here