Controversial European policy bans ships from throwing unwanted fish overboard

Long before fillets reach your dinner plate, lots of seafood is thrown away. Overboard, actually. As fishing crews sort through their catches, they toss unwanted fish back into the sea—as much as 20% of the global catch. The vast majority die. On 1 January, the wasteful practice became illegal in waters of the European Union.

Scientists believe the policy will lead to more efficient fisheries and eventually boost stocks. But in the short term it could mean hardship for the industry and perhaps even compromise fisheries data, because almost all crews can discard fish without anyone knowing. “This is one of the most dramatic changes in EU fisheries policy,” says Peder Andersen, an economist at the University of Copenhagen.

Regulators began to phase in the discard ban, formally known as the Landing Obligation, in 2015. To ease the pain, they started with vessels that didn’t discard much because they catch schools of herring and other single species. Now comes the bigger challenge: fisheries where many species live together, such as those in the North Sea. When vessels drag nets near or along the bottom, they end up with a jumble of species and sizes.

Until now, vessels only kept the valuable portion of their catch. The discarding of young fish, which haven’t yet reproduced much, has been a particular impediment to sustainability. Under the ban, fishing vessels must bring back all regulated species, a significant headache. More time will be spent sorting fish, as even the unwanted ones must be tallied and brought to port. Holds will fill up faster, meaning more trips to sea and higher fuel costs. And unwanted fish will be sold for a fraction of the price of the normal catch, if it can be sold at all. The hope is that the ban will incentivize vessels to adopt more selective fishing gear or strategies.

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