It must have been an incredibly morbid sight. Walkers on Marazion beach in Cornwall, at the south-western tip of mainland Britain, recently discovered tens of thousands of dead fish had been washed ashore overnight. One eyewitness told the Plymouth Herald the fish stretched “as far as the eye could see”.
People speculated that pollution or natural predators such as dolphins or porpoises chasing the fish ashore may be to blame. But a much simpler explanation soon unfolded when the Cornish Sardine Management Association said that one of its vessels had been fishing close inshore and had had to release one of its catches for safety reasons.
Exactly what happened in this case remains unclear. But why would a ship ever need to dump fish for safety reasons? After all, catching lots of fish is surely the entire point. In any case, a European Union discard ban was first implemented in 2015 in order to stop this sort of thing.
The ban applies to the discarding of commercially valuable species for which an EU catch quota is set. The process is being phased in gradually and first on the list are “pelagic” fish like mackerel or herring that live in the midwater to close to the surface of the sea. These species of fish were chosen because they are seen as the least complicated fisheries that generally have few bycatch species associated with them.
Other more complex fisheries like those for cod, Norway lobsters (scampi) and Dover sole, that have a greater mix of species in their catches, will gradually come under the rules of the discard ban. By 2019, all quota species will be encompassed by the legislation.
TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign successfully made it seem abhorrent to throw back perfectly edible fish simply because a vessel had no quota. Yet the Marazion stranding highlights the potential tension between well-intended legislation designed to reduce waste, and the issue of vessel safety and perhaps unintended consequences of management measures.