Millions of tons of fish are thrown away at sea each year around the world

Oceana asks the European Commission for a plan to completely eliminate discards.

Press Release Date: August 21, 2013

Location: Madrid


Marta Madina | email: | tel.: Marta Madina

The discarded fish constitute 8% of the total weight of the world’s captures, or more than 7.3 million tons of fish that are thrown away at sea. 

Oceana affirms that this practice is most troubling in the European Union’s Atlantic fisheries.

One out of every 6 kilos of fish captured in Europe never reaches the market because it is thrown away at sea; there are even fisheries so wasteful that up to 5 out of every 6 kilos of fish captured are thrown overboard.  Many of these fisheries are exactly the ones that have seen the biggest increases during the debates to determine this year’s fishing quotas.   

“Discard” is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as “the portion of the catch that is thrown away at sea for one reason or another.” This practice is carried out worldwide and is most acute in trawling fisheries for demersal species, in which the percentage of discards can reach up to 90% of the total catch. Taking into account that these estimates are made in relation to the declared catch, the data may be much more alarming. Other estimates point to more than 20 million tons of discards annually around the world.

This activity not only absurdly overexploits fish populations, but also significantly interferes with the balance of the food chain by promoting the development of opportunistic species that feed on the discarded fish. Both the General Assembly of the United Nations, though various resolutions, and the FAO, through the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, have emphasised the global need to minimise this practice.

There are various reasons that lead a vessel to discard a percentage of its catch, but for the most part it is due to the commercial or management strategies currently in place.

The waters of the European Atlantic is a hot spot for this activity and, together with the fisheries of the Northeast Pacific, make up 40% of worldwide discards. It is estimated that discards can reach up to 1,300,000 tons of fish in the Northeast Atlantic alone. This fact is even more troubling if we take into account that current EU legislation actually forces the discarding of fish when, for example, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) or minimum landing sizes are not met. Both measures are only applied to fish landed at port, but not to catches made at sea, and it is precisely these catches that have the most negative impact on fish populations and marine ecosystems.

One of Oceana’s requests is that the TAC’s determined by EU countries each year be established for catches and not landings, as the current system does not reflect the real volume of catches and therefore promotes this waste.

For example, the discarding of catches occurs when a vessel catches more than its allowed quota, or catches commercially inviable specimens, either due to the species itself or size. Frequently, vessels that fish for long periods of time find they no longer have enough storage space when they reach a certain volume of catch. These vessels discard part of the load in order to replace it with more commercially viable species.

According to Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research for Oceana in Europe: “This situation is unsustainable and constitutes an added problem to the overexploitation of fish populations”. This practice has decreased slightly during the last few years as a consequence of the increased demand for fishmeal, which is made with commercially inviable species. According to Maria Jose Cornax, Oceana researcher, This supposed decrease is not necessarily good news, because discard estimates are based on landed catches and not actual catches. Furthermore, this practice leads to data regarding the actual state of the fisheries, making the management measures put into practice useless”.

On various occasions, Oceana has reiterated that the EU fleet takes part in some of the most wasteful fisheries in the world. Clear examples of this are  fisheries using “rasco” gillnets, bottom gillnets used to catch monkfish (Lophius spp.) and bottom trawling for catching crustaceans such as the Norway lobster (Nephrops norvegicus). In the case of the gillnets, it is estimated that up to 71% of the monkfish captured is discarded because the fish is damaged or because of the long period of time these nets are left in the water.  Regarding bottom trawling for crustaceans off the coasts of the Portuguese Algarve, discards can constitute up to 70% of total catch; approximately 35,000 tons of fish are thrown away at sea each year. In other trawling fisheries for flat fish or deep-sea species, discards can exceed 90% of total catch.

In the waters of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, trawling is the fishing gear with the highest percentage of discards due to the large number of non-target species captured. It is estimated that, on average, half of the catch taken by these trawlers is discarded.

Furthermore, there are other practices not directly related to targeted species that engage in discarding, such as the well-known practice of shark-finning. This practice consists of cutting off the shark’s fin and discarding the rest of the body at sea while it is often still alive. Discarding also takes place when certain protected species are incidentally caught, such as marine turtles or cetaceans, which are then also thrown away at sea.

According to declarations made by the European Commissioner for fisheries, Joe Borg, to the Financial Times:  “It is morally wrong to literally dump fish back into the sea. We are wasting a precious resource.”

Ricardo Aguilar concludes that, “It is not enough that we overexploit fish populations, now we waste them also. We need to take urgent measures to minimise this practice, at the very least.”