| This is the EU's best chance in a decade to reduce fish discards|
|I've often given our fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, a hard time in my Fish Fight programmes. And what I've found – and what most other people confirm – is that he is a Very Nice Guy. He stayed charming at Billingsgate market where I tested his knowledge of our most common commercial fish species, and remained polite and courteous while I hassled him in his constituency office for more ambitious marine protection around the coast of the UK. And I believe that, unlike some politicians, his charm has some backbone behind it.|
Benyon has stuck it out as fisheries minister – not the apex of political ambition – while other MPs have been shuffled around him. I think that's because he has genuinely tried to get to grips with his brief, and truly wants to see real reform of Europe's fisheries. He also knows there's a once-in-a-decade opportunity to do that, as the new common fisheries policy enters its final stages of negotiation next week. But if he's going to ensure that new CFP includes a proper discard ban – one that will finally eliminate the disgraceful waste of fish that occurs under the current system – Benyon faces the meeting of his life next Monday and Tuesday.
The discard ban is just one element of the new CFP, which has been wending its way through the corridors of Brussels for more than two years. Both the council of ministers – including Benyon – and the European parliament have agreed in principle to ban discards. That's been a huge result for people power. The European parliament – encouraged by a massive social media campaign that Fish Fight, the group I launched, was proud to spearhead – demonstrated that it is listening to hundreds of thousands of European citizens (including us Fish Fighters) and voted for a CFP package that many say could truly turn the tide, and set the continent's fisheries on a sustainable course. And now we're in the endgame: a tussle between the parliament and the ministers over the final shape of the new CFP.
Next week, Europe's fishery ministers have to agree on their final CFP proposal. And there's plenty to haggle over – with powerful fishing countries such as France and Spain happier to see the current broken system continue, rather than deal with the awkward aspects of transforming their fisheries into a sustainable, profitable and growing sector.
The ministers have to leave the room with a deal among themselves if they're going to keep the reform process on track. And if the new CFP is going to include a decent discard ban, and truly allow fish stocks to recover, we need Benyon to speak up loud and clear for what he truly believes in. He'll have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other progressive ministers and negotiate aggressively to stop France and Spain fatally weakening the CFP, or even scuppering the process altogether.
It's not just 850,000 Fish Fighters who should give Benyon the confidence to push for a real end to discards. No one is pretending it's an easy task to change a fishery to eliminate discards, but the British fishing fleet is leading the way in showing that waste at sea can be hugely reduced. In both Scotland and England, a number of skippers have signed up to trials where they don't have to discard any cod. They are not allowed to catch cod willy-nilly – they still have quotas they cannot exceed. But they use more selective fishing gear, and must move away from an area if they start catching too much cod. CCTV cameras on their boats allow the enforcement agencies to ensure they are sticking to the rules. The reward for the fishermen is extra quota (so by killing fewer cod, they are actually allowed to land, and sell, more), and more days at sea (in part because of the extra time involved in avoiding cod).
It's not just the big North Sea trawlers that have a discards problem. The smaller boats – under 10m – that make up the bulk of vessels in the British fleet, have struggled with a quota system that is stacked against them. Theymake up 77% of the UK's fishing boats, but only get 4% of the fishing quota. As I found in Hastings while filming for Fish Fight, – t hey can have cod quotas so low that they equate to less than one whole fish per day. These small-scale fishermen generally use fishing gear that is more selective, and therefore more sustainable, than trawl nets. But if they aren't given a sensible quota, they also end up having to throw tonnes of good fish back into the sea.
In a move I heartily applaud, Benyon, with the support of Greenpeace, has attempted to reallocate unused quota from larger boats to the under-10 fleet. Even Greenpeace has praised the minister for this move. But the owners of the larger boats, alarmed at the precedent this could set, took the government to court last week seeking to overturn the re-allocation. We await the outcome of the case, but it will be a breakthrough for a fairer system if the government case succeeds. Supporting smaller-scale, low-impact fishermen in this way will also have the desirable effect of reducing discards. They will, quite simply, be able to keep more of their catch, and so will kill less fish in pursuit of what they can keep.
So I believe the UK fishing fleet and the minister who represents them have the will, and the means, to end discards and set our fisheries full-steam ahead for recovery. There are undoubtedly some big challenges ahead in making these huge changes real. But we must not be dragged down by nations that are afraid of change. Whether we stay in the EU in the long run is not relevant here – we're going to be stuck with the new CFP for a long while whatever happens. Even Ukip's Nigel Farage – until recently an unlikely figure on the European parliament's fisheries committee – made a rare appearance to cast his vote for an end to discards.
Next week, Benyon must show us that Britain can do the hard diplomacy required to get results in Europe. He's already done this to help end the practice of shark finning by European fleets. He's got 850,000 Fish Fighters right behind him on discards. And we won't mind a bit if he drops the Mr Nice Guy schtick to get his way.