Resolving the issue, which seems an affront to the idea of cherishing nature’s gifts, is complex, challenging and as last summer’s negotiations showed, far more complex than might be immediately imagined.
Last June, in what fisheries minister Simon Coveney described as the “most significant outcome at an EU Fisheries Council in ... a decade” an agreement was reached to eventually end the dumping of dead fish at sea.
There has been growing and increasingly vociferous opposition to the practice which sees, or if the June deal succeeds in its commendable objectives, saw, more than a third of white fish caught in Irish waters by the domestic fleet dumped back into the sea.
As everyone involved, fishermen, regulators and the public have acknowledged this is not sustainable on an ethical, environmental or even a commercial basis.
The idea of dumping perfectly good food challenges the most basic concepts of how to use what the sea, or the land, has to bestow. That it is being done when populations of a majority of commercially exploited species, especially high-value fish like tuna, are struggling to regenerate, much less sustain, population levels because of ever-more effective fishing fleets makes the idea even more offensive. The scale of the problem is gargantuan.
Earlier this year, a State Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) report on the activity of factory vessels working off our coast produced some astonishing figures. Based on the German government’s vessel-monitoring system data showing the activities of German-registered Dutch factory ships it revealed that four Dutch firms own or control 30 factory ships, catching pelagic fish, such as mackerel, herring, blue whiting or horse mackerel. The report estimated each of the all-weather factory ships can process at least 200 tonnes a day, “high grading” to select the largest and dumping or mincing the rest. SFPA estimated that the catch during a 150-day period was an almost incomprehensible 1,680,000 tonnes of fish.
No matter how bountiful the sea, and remember these were vessels from just one country, it is hard to see how that level of extraction can be sustained.
When that figure is put beside one of the sound bites current in the debate about population growth and feeding the world’s population in a few decades — “we have to produce in the next 40 years as much food as we produced in the last 10,000 years” — it takes on a deeply chilling and threatening aspect.
Like banking, commercial fishing is a transnational industry largely uncontrollable by any domestic laws. In the wider context confronting the issue of discards is commendable but unfortunately long overdue.
However, it is difficult not to get an impression that we need to manage our oceans, especially international waters, far more rigorously than we do if fish stocks are not to be exploited to a point beyond rejuvenation. It is hard not to get the impression that confronting the appalling waste of discards may be too little too late.