FEATURE ARTICLE - One year on: the landing obligation in Europe

The first feature article of 2016 looks at the effect the introduction of the landing obligation has had on EU fisheries.
Published: 26 February 2016

​​​​by ​Lisa Borges, FishFix

The recent reform of the European Union's (EU) Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) introduced a landing obligation for all EU fishing vessels for certain species and fisheries starting from 2015. This discarding prohibition is an important example of a recent trend in fisheries management to limit discarding, reflecting successful public opinion campaigns that see it as a waste of resources (Borges, 2015). Its primary objective is to reduce unwanted catch (European Union, 2013), while at the same time to promote sustainable fisheries by reducing fishing mortality of low commercial value sizes and species.

Considering that many commercial stocks are moderately to highly discarded (ICES, 2015), if the landing obligation is fully implemented, i.e. monitored at sea at significantly high levels, it is likely that fishing operations will change to maximize the use of the space on board vessels and quota available for high value species and sizes. The landing obligation could therefore represent the biggest push for more selective fishing in the EU in the history of the CFP. There will probably be a significant change in fleet diversity, and thus in the global harvest pattern of EU fishing fleets, as many fishers are considering changing fishing gears to more selective ones.

One year on and what has changed?

Is the landing obligation on its way to reaching its goal? Has unwanted catch been reduced (and probably fishing mortality too)? To answer all of these questions, it is important to note that in 2015 the EU landing obligation was only applicable to TAC regulated species caught by pelagic fisheries and fisheries in the Baltic Sea. Most importantly, enforcement of the landing obligation was postponed to 2017 in order to give fishers time to adjust their operations (European Union, 2015). Three possible exemptions were also granted: species for which fishing is prohibited, species that have high survival rates after being discarded, and catches falling under the de minimis exemption (difficulties in increasing selectivity or disproportionate costs of handling unwanted catches). And finally, Total Allowable Catches (TACs) were adjusted to account for the previously discarded part of the catch.

In the Baltic Sea, the most significant change that accompanied the landing obligation in 2015 was the reduction of the size at which cod can be sold for human consumption, i.e. the change from Minimum Landing Size of 38 cm to the Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS) of 35 cm. Catches below MCRS have to be landed but have limited use to avoid creating markets for undersized fish. As expected, there was an increase in cod landings between 35-38 cm, which in turn  caused an increase in national quota consumption, since Baltic cod stocks size composition is small (MRAG, 2016). At the same time, industry reports the difficulty in increasing gear selectivity due to the restrictions in the trawl gear allowed in the Baltic Sea (BSAC, 2016). However, there was no apparent increase in landings of previously discarded catch below 35 cm, while the difference between reported discard rates by different agencies has increased (MRAG, 2016; BALTISH, 2016). In pelagic fisheries, the most important changes were the application of the exemptions for survival and the de minimis in some fisheries. These have provided the flexibility that allowed the industry to adapt to the landing obligation without any significant change in their operations (PELAC, 2015). This is not surprising considering that most, if not all, pelagic fisheries under the landing obligation have low discarding and are monitored to some level. However, Member States still have different interpretations of the requirement and exemptions of the landing obligation for pelagic fisheries.​

In summary, it seems that fishing operations in the European Union have not changed significantly after one year of the landing obligation. In some fisheries unwanted catch was simply reduced by setting the MCRS below the previous MLS. The landing obligation has, however, clearly diminished our knowledge of discarding behaviour and quantities. Its underlying objective of reducing unwanted catch by focusing fisheries selectivity has not been achieved, while it has yet to be assessed whether fishing mortality has increased or not.

ICES and the landing obligation

Has the introduction of the landing obligation had any effect on ICES work as the main provider of advice on fishing opportunities in Europe? One significant change is that ICES now provides advice on total catch (wanted and unwanted) and not just landings. Discards have now taken a prominent place in the advice at the same level as landings. However, one has to consider that ICES wanted catch advice is based on long-term systematic port sampling schemes, while the unwanted catch advice is based on limited sampling programmes that are currently likely to be biased. So how reliable is ICES advice with regard to unwanted catch? How has it impacted the quality of the advice? And finally, has the change in fishing behaviour that is likely to occur with the implementation of the landing obligation been taken into consideration when formulation this advice? These are fundamental questions that ICES scientists need to urgently address to ensure the quality of future advice.

Future fisheries​

Finally, how will the landing obligation impact from 2016 onwards as it includes more (demersal) fisheries? In the short term, as levels of enforcement continue to be low or absent and legislative inconsistencies remain (e.g. as regards technical measures and reporting obligations) it is unlikely there will be any significant change in catches. However, considering that the majority of the 2016 TACs under the landing obligation were significantly increased above scientific advice (before any adjustments due to discards were made), it is probable that in the near future unwanted catches will in fact increase, associated to the increase in fishing mortality due to the availability of more fishing opportunities. Discarded catches will also increase as quota swaps become more difficult due to Member States resistance to forego future (unwanted) catch opportunities.​ To counter this, we are in dire need of cautious positions from managers and industry, e.g. by avoiding the use of so-called "interspecies flexibility", the MCRS reductions or TAC increases as fake unwanted catch reduction mechanisms.

In the long term, in an ideal European fisheries management world, the increase in control and enforcement from 2017, the generalization of the landing obligation to all fisheries, and the possibility of short term TAC decisions restricted by multiannual plans, may indeed allow the EU landing obligation to deliver on its own objectives and have a positive effect on the sustainability of European fisheries. That is, of course, if you believe in ideal worlds.​

​​​​​​​​Lisa Borges' career in discards began when she managed the data from the discard observers programme at the Marine Institute in Ireland, where she alos took a PhD in demersal fishereies discards. She continued this work in IMARES, the Dutch Fisheries Institute, where she worked on discards from pelagic fisheries. In 2007, she moved to the European Commission to work on conservation policy for fish stocks in Atlantic waters, responsible among other things for defining new policies on discards in European fisheries. In 2010, she created her own consultancy company FishFix.

This work was partially financed by the EU H2020 project DiscardLess (Grant Agreement No 633680).

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​Box of discards. Photo by Lisa Borges.


BALTFISH. 2016. Report from the BALTFISH Technical Working Group. 27-28 January 2016. Gdynia, Poland. 7 p.

Borges, L. 2015. The evolution of a discard policy in Europe. Fish and Fisheries, 16: 534-540.

BSAC. 2016. Joint Working Group (Demersal + Pelagic) to continue the discussions on technical measures for the Baltic and draft amendments to the technical measures regulation for the Baltic 2187/2005. 26-27 January 2016. Gdynia, Poland. 12 p.

European Union. 2013. Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013  of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1954/2003 and (EC) No 1224/2009 and repealing Council Regulations (EC) No 2371/2002 and (EC) No 639/2004 and Council Decision 2004/585/EC. Official Journal of the European Communities, L354: 22–61.

European Union. 2015. Regulation (EU) 2015/812 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 amending Council Regulations (EC) No 850/98, (EC) No 2187/2005, (EC) No 1967/2006, (EC) No 1098/2007, (EC) No 254/2002, (EC) No 2347/2002 and (EC) No 1224/2009, and Regulations (EU) No 1379/2013 and (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council, as regards the landing obligation, and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 1434/98. Official Journal of the European Communities, L133: 1–20.

ICES. 2015. Report of the ICES Advisory Committee. ICES Advice, Book 3.

MRAG. 2016. 4th Surveillance Report, DFPO Denmark Eastern Baltic Cod Fishery. 28 p. 

PELAC. 2015. Annex II: Experiences with the landing obligation in pelagic fisheries​. Pp: 9-12 

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FEATURE ARTICLE - One year on: the landing obligation in Europe

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