Fish discards banned – but what’s the catch?

This post is by Katherine Maltby, an MBiolSci Biology with Conservation and Biodiversity student at the University of Sheffield. Her research interests span marine ecology and fisheries management, with a particular focus on socio-ecological systems and linking ecology to policy using multidisciplinary approaches. Katherine is currently assessing the drivers behind the behaviour of fishing fleets and the implications these have for management.

Earlier this year, in the latest of EU Common Fisheries Policy reforms, the European Union Fisheries Council announced that the practice of discarding in European fisheries was to be banned. Discarding has sparked much public and political debate throughout Europe as fish that are unwanted, over quota or below minimum landing size are thrown back into the sea; a waste both economically and environmentally. Many have welcomed this move to eliminate discarding, which is due to commence firstly in industrial and pelagic fisheries no later than January 2014. However, a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology raises a perhaps overlooked perspective on the impacts that such a ban could impose: the consequences for seabirds.

The review, led by Dr. Anthony Bicknell of Plymouth University, highlights the dependency that many seabirds have developed upon the discards produced by European fishing boats. Those which may be particularly vulnerable to a drop in the number of discards as a result of the ban are scavenging birds such as gulls, terns, fulmars and skuas, in addition to the critically endangered Balearic shearwater. Whilst many of these sea birds are generalist feeders and should be able to switch to eating other non-discarded foods, the paper exposed a variety of impacts that could influence these birds at both population and community levels. Altered foraging and breeding success, range shifts to inland environments and an increased reliance on perhaps limited ‘natural’ fish numbers reflect the consequences that seabirds may face as a result of the discards ban, although most are predicted to be short term. Whilst it’s not all bad news – by-catches of some seabirds could decrease as they’ll be less attracted to boats – current knowledge in some aspects of seabird ecology is hindering the ability to accurately predict the exact consequences that may result.

But what exactly can be done? Other policies surrounding seabirds and the wider marine environment could play a vital part in helping these birds. The paper, and organisations such as the RSPB, highlights a particular solution that extends far beyond just protecting seabirds; marine protected areas (MPAs). These could play a key role in ensuring seabirds are resilient to the change in discard practices. By protecting foraging habitats and supporting fish stocks that seabirds may become increasingly reliant upon, MPAs may certainly be able to help seabirds in the short term. A network of protected areas is in the process of being designated in the UK, with 31 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) set to be created around the UK to protect both habitats and species. The level of protection this will afford, however, is questioned by leading marine scientists, and only represents a fraction of the number of areas that were originally proposed (127). This potential role that protected areas could have in supporting seabirds exposed to a drop in discards therefore shows further reasoning for the full proposed network of MCZs.

The impacts the discarding ban could pose on these birds also have direct relevance to the EU Action Plan for reducing incidental catches of seabirds in fishing gears, which was adopted last November to address the problem of accidental by-catch of seabirds. Estimates by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) Working Group on Seabird Ecology suggest that around 200,000 seabirds are caught as by-catch every year in European fisheries, with birds particularly drawn to longline fisheries[K1] . While it is thought that on the whole by-catch of seabirds should decline in the wake of the discards ban, some specialist fish-eating species could become increasingly drawn towards longline fisheries in an attempt to get an easy meal. This often results in birds getting caught on the hooks and drowning. It’s important then that the steps outlined in the recently adopted Action Plan are implemented and enforced as soon as possible so that any future reliance of seabirds on longlines is reduced. These steps include increasing monitoring and recording of seabird by-catch by fishing vessels, ensuring that fishing activity takes place in areas/at certain times when seabird interactions will be lower (such as at night) and reducing the attractiveness of fishing lines, through the use of streamer lines which scare the birds.

The key, it seems, is helping to restore resilience in the seabird populations that have become accustomed to taking advantage of the ‘easy pickings’ that discards have provided. Whether this is through MPAs or reducing reliance on other fishing boats, it is likely that a coordinated effort between current and future policy objectives would bring about the best results in terms of reducing the impacts seabirds will face. The complexity of the issues involved may hinder this process, but through continued scientific work to bridge the knowledge gaps about seabird ecology as well as pressure to implement policy changes, hopefully the future looks bright for seabirds despite the discard ban.