A critical review of the European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) relating to discarding, with recommendations for changes to the policy.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy

The framework for fisheries management in the EU is now set out in Regulation 2371/2002 under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) (European Council 2002). Since the 1970s, a variety of instruments have been employed to curb overfishing or to prohibit damaging practices and yet a growing number of commercial fish stocks in European waters are considered to be outside safe biological limits (Stokke et al. 2004).

The CFP uses two types of instruments to conserve fish stocks within its jurisdiction: total allowable catches (TACs) which set upper limits for the total amount of fish which can be landed from particular areas; and technical measures including gear regulations, closed seasons, closed areas, and minimum allowable sizes for individual species (Daw et al. 2005), in addition the policy attempts to limit fishing effort by controlling the capacity of fleets (structural measures) and limiting time spent at sea. The establishment of these measures is based on scientific assessment of the status of stocks.

Working groups of scientists within the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) coordinate and report on research, which is then discussed by the ICES Advisory Committee on Fishery Management (ACFM) and used to produce scientific advice for the European Commission (Daw et al. 2005). Currently EU legislation designates TACs for each species. The TACs are divided between member states. Each state then allocates quotas to fishermen and fishermen co-ops.

Stock status' in the European ICES fishing regions. Circle size is scaled proportional to the magnitude of the regional catch.

Stock status' in the European ICES fishing regions. Circle size is scaled proportional to the magnitude of the regional catch (click to enlarge).

The main intension of this legislation is to conserve stocks. Legislation dictates that any fish caught below minimum landing size or any fish that exceeds the designated quota, must be discarded. It is illegal to land fish exceeding quota limits or outside size limits.

Summary of discards and current discards policy

A huge problem with the current CFP is the wasteful discards policy in place. In its most simple form, discarding is the routine throwing overboard of unwanted or unlandable catch. A more succinct definition given by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states discards to be “that proportion of the total organic material of animal origin in the catch, which is thrown away, or dumped at sea for whatever reason. It does not include plant material and post harvest waste such as offal. The discards may be dead or alive” (FAO 2005).

International changes to discards policies

The Canadian Government banned discarding in its Atlantic Groundfish fishery it is now illegal to discard any groundfish except those specifically authorised and those caught in cod traps. In addition to the banning of discards larger vessels are required to carry observers which would imply that there are now no illegal discards on these vessels (Clucas, 1997).

In Iceland the government introduced an Individual Transferable Quota system (ITQ) where a species specific Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is put forward (in weight) for a period of time, the ITQ system was followed by a ban of at-sea discarding of catch (Clucas, 1997).

The combination of these two measures, will ensure the retention of species over their quota but which still have a market, as it is mandatory to land small fish too, there are upper limits on the percentage weight of fish that can be landed below minimum landing size, ergo, discouraging the capture of smaller fish.

The Faroe Islands and Greenland adopted very similar regulations to that of Iceland. The Norwegian government introduced a ban on the discarding of some commercial species of fish in mid 1990 (Clucas, 1997). The Norwegian system of attempting to reduce mortality of illegal fish based on reducing their capture rather than reducing landing of “illegal” specimens (Løbach 1996).

Consequences of discarding

All marine fauna caught and discarded have usually only a very small percent chance of survival. The discard mortality of all fish species caught in the Nephrops fishery is estimated at 100% with Nephrops discard mortality estimated at 75–100% (Evans 1994).

Trawling is destructive to the marine benthos and can generate high discards

The level of discard mortality depends on species characteristics, catch composition and haul duration (Lindeboom 1998). Organisms killed as discards, are lost as future potential income for fishermen, future spawning stock biomass and killing and returning fauna to the sea alters the ecosystem dynamics, but also providing food for benthic detritivores e.g. arthropods.

Possible alterations to the current discards policy

The current discards policy is showing to be extremely wasteful, and though it has theoretically reduced EU fish landing to represent a somewhat safe biological limit, the policy ignores the huge mass of discards and bycatch killed in the process.

Shrimp trawl bycatch, one of the most wasteful fisheries.


In the North Sea for example; the flatfish beam trawl fishery, the discarded invertebrates; whelks (Buccinium undatum), starfish (Asterias rubens, Astropecten irregularis) and crabs (Cancer pagurus, Corystes cassivelanaunus, Liocarcinus holsatus) have estimated discard mortalities of 0, <10 and 60–70%, respectively (Lindeboom 1998).

The total annual quantity of discards discharged into the North Sea alone is estimated at 800,000–950,000 tonnes (Tasker 2000).

Many of the important commercial stocks (e.g. North Sea cod Gadus morhua) have suffered serious declines and are threatened with collapse; management measures have proven ineffective; and the European fleet has not successfully been downsized to an appropriate capacity to exploit the dwindling resources (Gonzales Laxe 1999).

The current consensus of European fisheries scientists and managers is that improved selectivity of fishing gear will not sufficiently improve the state of stocks, and that this objective can only be achieved by a reduction in fishing effort (Catchpole, T.L. et al. 2004).

Selective fishing gear allowing more juveniles to escape.

The European Fisheries Commission believes that the most important contribution towards reducing discards is through the improvement of North Sea fish stocks (Anon 2002); stating a reduction in exploitation will improve stock conditions and fish survival, though does not explain how discards will be reduced.

One of the most obvious ways one could reduce discards is to reduce fishing effort, however this has an immediate knock on effect to the fishermen, effectively reducing their catch solely to reduce discards. This method may encourage fishermen to be more diligent and selective in their fishing practices e.g. use of selective gear or inversely cause some fishermen to be less selective, catching as much as possible and keeping the better specimen and or high grading their catch.

With unchanged rates of discarding, an increase in discards will follow any increase in fishing effort or increase in fish abundance; thus, fishing effort controls do not provide a long-term solution to the discard problem (Catchpole, T.L. 2004). However, if one were to restrict the number of permissible fishing days per season and completely ban discarding the fisherman could compensate the loss in fishing days with the non-discarded fish, reducing overall fishing effort with no discards at all.

Furthermore the incorporation of selective gear could further increase the survival of juvenile, young and non-target species. Over a period of some years gear selectively could be increased, this would further allow species e.g. cod, survive to a reach a greater age and spawn several times over their lifetime.

The CFP is up for review in 2012, and recently there has been a big push to cut the current discards policy from future policies.


  • Anon. On a Community Action Plan to reduce discards of fish—communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.
  • Clucas, I, (1997). A study of the options for utilization of bycatch and discards from marine capture fisheries. FAO Technical Paper 928: 57pp.
  • Catchpole, T.L et al. (2004). Discards in North Sea fisheries: causes, consequences and solutions. Marine Policy, Vol. 29, Issue 5, Page 421 – 430, Elsevier.
  • Daw T. & Gray T. (2005). Fisheries science and sustainability in international policy: a study of failure in the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. Marine Policy, 29, 189-197.
  • European Council (2002). Council Regulation 2371/2002 on the conservation and sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources under the Common Fisheries Policy, OJ L358, 31.12.2002.
  • European Commission, (2007). “A policy to reduce unwanted by-catches and eliminate discards in European fisheries. SEC(2007) 380, SEC(2007) 381, Brussels.
  • European Commission, (2007). “A policy to reduce unwanted by-catches and eliminate discards in European fisheries”. Impact Assessment. SEC(2007) 380, Brussels.
  • Evans, S.M. (1994). Composition and fate of the catch and bycatch in the Farne Deep (North Sea) Nephrops fishery, ICES Journal of Marine Science 51, p. 155.
  • FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 339 (1994); FAO Fisheries Report 547 (1996); FAO Fisheries Technical Paper 470 (2005).
  • Gonzales Laxe F., (1999) The inadequacies and ambiguities of the Common Fisheries Policy. In: Symes D, editor. Alternative management systems for fisheries. Oxford: Fishing News Books;. p. 13–20.
  • Harremoes P, et al. (2002), editors. The precautionary principle in the 20th century: late lessons from early warnings. London: Earthscan.
  • Løbach, T, (1996). “Compatibility and applicability of discard/retention rules for the conservation and utilisation of fishery resources in the Northwest Atlantic”. Workshop on Discard/Retention Rules. St Petersburg.
  • Lindeboom HJ, (1998). IMPACT-II The effects of different types of fisheries on the North Sea and Irish Sea benthic ecosystems. Netherlands Institutes for Sea Research.
  • O’Riordan T, et al. (1994), editors. Interpreting the precautionary principle. London: Cameron and May.
  • Tasker, M.L. et al. (2000). The impacts of fishing on marine birds, ICES Journal of Marine Science 57, p. 531.
  • Stokke O.S. & Coffey C. (2004). Precaution, ICES and the common fisheries policy: a study of regime interplay. Marine Policy, 28, 117-126.

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