The Fish Fight campaign organised by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has achieved something quite remarkable in galvanising public attention on the terrible waste caused by fish being thrown back into the sea dead.
Because discarding is something that happens over the horizon it was out of our consciousness. Imagine if half the lambs slaughtered were allowed to litter the countryside – there would have been an outrage right from the start. The Fish Fight has brought the horrible sight of discards into our homes.
By Richard Benyon who is fisheries minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This article first appeared in the Guardian on Friday 12th August 2011.
But while Hugh's programmes have given an excellent picture of the problem, they haven't shown what's being done to bring these disgraceful practices to an end.
I have been passionate about this for many years. The devastating waste of good, healthy food should be condemned in any society – and in a world where food prices and food security area a burning issue, it is reprehensible. If I could achieve one lasting thing in my time as a minister, it would be to achieve a radical reform of a broken Common Fisheries Policy that has not helped fish stocks recover or secured the survival of the fishing industry.
The European Commission has now published its ideas for reforming the CFP. But we haven't been standing still waiting for the Commission to publish its proposals. For the past two years, my department has been working on many ways to end discards.
We have started initiatives such as catch-quota trials, where fishermen have been able to land all their catch. Indeed, we arranged for Hugh to take part in one of these trials for his programme. We have also been working with fishermen in the south-west on Project 50%, which experimented with different types of fishing gear and resulted in a significant reduction in discards. And a few weeks ago we published our Fishing for the Markets project, an initiative to find ways of encouraging people to try different types of fish instead of always choosing species under pressure, such as cod. While the rules imposed by Europe mean that 22% of fish thrown back dead are due to quotas, 54 per cent of discards are simply because there is no market for them.
Hugh had some fun at my expense in his programmes, even suggesting that I was stonewalling him on the phone – it wasn't me on the other end of the line – over his invitation to go on a trawler with him. I didn't do too well on his fish test, about which George Monbiot has taken pleasure in reminding me. However, what is more important is that I know and understand what the problems are and want to fix them.
One of these problems, which George Monbiot has raised, is the very serious issue of mackerel fishing by Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Mackerel numbers are in danger of collapsing within a few years if this irresponsible hoovering up of fish is allowed to continue.
But Mr Monbiot is wrong to say no one is negotiating – we and many other European countries keep pushing the issue, but Iceland and the Faroes keep walking away from the table. It's hard to negotiate with people if they're not willing to be in the room.
Our door has always been open and it's now time to settle this at the top, at minister level. The Marine Stewardship Council has already threatened to remove its sustainable fish accreditation from mackerel, which would be a travesty for a fish that was once hailed as being among the most sustainable. Short-sighted overfishing can't be allowed to continue.