The objective of commercial fishermen is to catch fish that can be sold. The higher the price that these fish fetch at market, the more money the fishermen will make. The fishermen has limited time and space in which to maximise their income, so in order to do so their main objective must be to be as selective as possible. However most fisheries are at least partially non-selective and catch fish and other animals that are not targeted. This non-targeted catch is known as bycatch. This bycatch is usually discarded (thrown over the side of the boat either dead or dying).
In the North Sea nearly one million tonnes of marine life is discarded in this way every year, and unbelievably, seventy percent is comprised of commercially important fish species. This equates to nearly one-third of the total fish landed by fishermen, and one-tenth of the estimated total biomass of fish in the North Sea. These fish are discarded because they are either undersized, over quota or not of sufficiently high value to the fisherman.
In EU Community waters the practice of discarding fish is not illegal and it speaks volumes on EU fisheries policy that when in a time of worldwide food and fuel shortages and rapidly declining fish stocks the practice of discarding is not only tolerated, but is in many cases a legally binding requirement.
There is no way of knowing what damage discarding has on the marine ecosystem as amazingly very little scientific research has been carried out to determine its detrimental affects on the marine ecosystem, but it is worth mentioning that no other industry gets close to the practice of discarding in terms of sheer waste and destructiveness.
Norway obviously feels strongly enough about the matter to have banned the discarding of commercial fish in its waters as early as 1990, requiring all boats to land the fish for processing into fishmeal. Measures have also been introduced whereby fisheries can be closed very quickly if an area is found to contain a large number of juvenile fish.
So what are the solutions? Personally I would completely ban the discarding of bycatch but in the meantine perhaps an agreement could be put in place where fishermen are given an amnesty so boats can land their bycatch and a proper scientific audit can be carried out?
Almost half of all discards are caused by the various types of trawling, and it may be time to call and end to this particularly destructive method of fishing. If the Marine Stewardship Council's fishery certification program and seafood eco-label gain widespread acceptance within the EU member countries this may in itself help to end the indiscriminate methods employed by trawling.
Bycatch and discards are an aberration. We are in the 21st century and yet the wholesale slaughter of our marine life still continues in our oceans, with no protected areas from which marine life can recover from this onslaught, and where the fishermen, once their catch is dead, can pick and choose which animals are worth keeping and which can dumped back into the ocean. This cannot be right.