No need to go overboard

With a global focus on making better use of our fisheries resources, an age-old issue gains renewed focus

The fate of unwanted catch has become an increasingly hot topic in the debate about sustainable fisheries
Photo: Paul Jones

By Catherine Norwood

Internationally, fisheries discards – that part of the catch that fishers throw back – have been an issue of rising concern in recent decades.

While some element of unwanted catch is inherent in the practice of fishing, discards have become integral to concerns about declining wild fish stocks and food security. If resources are under threat, and people are starving, why then are we ‘throwing fish away’?

This was a key theme underpinning the high-profile anti-discard Fish Fight campaign launched in 2010 by UK celebrity chef and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and supported by various NGOs including the Marine Conservation Society.

The campaign gained widespread community support throughout Europe and in 2013 the European Union reformed its Common Fisheries Policy to place a ban on the discard of commercial quota species. 

The aim is to gradually eliminate discards of quota species in European fisheries. Generally, in cases where juvenile fish of commercial species are caught and where fishers do not have specific quota for the species caught, this catch must be landed, rather than discarded. However, many non-commercial quota species will continue to be discarded.

The EU’s move has heightened the focus on bycatch and discard policies and practices around the world, including in Australia, challenging fisheries managers and fishers to either fish more selectively or to make greater use of the total catch.

Fisheries managers globally are also watching closely how the EU’s ‘landings obligations’ – as it is officially known – will affect fisheries resources, fisher behaviour and seafood markets, as it continues its staged implementation over the next three years. 

Catch details

There is often confusion in some of the basic terminology used in the bycatch and discards debates. The ‘catch’, for instance, represents everything that is brought on board when fishing, not just the target species. 

Bycatch is a broader term that incorporates everything that is caught unintentionally. It includes byproduct species kept for sale as well as animals discarded, either because fishers are required to do so by law, or because they choose to do so. It also includes species affected by fishing gear which are not brought on board. 

In Australia, fish or other animals that are not the target species, but which can be legally kept and are retained by fishers for sale, are referred to as byproduct. Each jurisdiction sets its own regulations about what can and cannot be retained in its fisheries.

Discards include any part of the catch that is returned to sea, whether dead or alive – including animals that cannot legally be retained because of their species, size or gender, or because the fisher has insufficient quota. It also includes animals that could be kept, but which are discarded because they are perceived to have a low market value. 

Sometimes threatened, endangered and protected species (TEPS) are among the bycatch. In Australia these can include turtles, seabirds, seals, dolphins and many shark species, which must be released by law. TEPS are not generally considered from a discard perspective.

In Australia, the FRDC and other fisheries agencies have invested extensively in research over many years, working with fishers to reduce discards and improve fishing selectivity. Bycatch and discards are already considered in many fisheries management decisions, including Commonwealth legislation related to TEPS.

For fishers, discards represent a cost in terms of time, fuel and labour on which there is no return. To maximise their returns and to be as efficient as possible, the fewer discards to deal with the better. 

Research has also shown that discards can potentially affect the future yields of some commercial fisheries as well as the dynamics of ecosystems, and managers are keen to reduce these potential impacts.

Using hoppers to sort the catch can help improve the survival rates of fish and other species that are then discarded.
Photo: NSW Fisheries

New research initiatives

The increased profile of discards has triggered a new suite of research to detail more accurately exactly what is discarded and to make better use of a larger portion of the catch, which will effectively reduce discards. 

This work may not be timely enough for the United Nations’ third update of its reporting on Discards of the world’s marine fisheries, which is in the process of being compiled for release later this year. The UN’s second report on the issue, released in 2005, provided a major impetus for Fish Fight and other discard reduction campaigns.

In this report, it was estimated that Australian fishers landed less than half of the marine life they actually caught. Produced by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the report put Australian discards at 55.3 per cent of the national catch.

Fisheries management consultant and research scientist Steve Kennelly believes the 2005 FAO figure overstates the level of discards in Australia and is confident more-accurate data will reveal a better performance, supported by many improvements in fishing techniques and management in the interim. 

He is leading an FRDC-funded project to improve Australia’s discard data collection and reporting. The national bycatch and discard reporting system being developed will complement and help shape the next generation of Status of Australian Fish Stocks (SAFS) Reports, he says.

The SAFS reports have been well-received and acknowledged as harmonising the reporting of commercially harvested species across Australia’s seven fisheries jurisdictions. The discards report will harmonise the reporting of the ‘other’, often unaccounted for, part of the catch.

“Fish stocks are a publicly owned resource,” Steve Kennelly says. “And it is incumbent on those who manage that resource on behalf of the community to report on its status to those owners. While the retained catch becomes the property of the fisher, discards remain public property all the time. So, from this perspective, it is as important, or even more important, to report to the public on discards than the harvested stocks.”

Reporting details

Information about bycatch and discards comes primarily from observer programs and self-reported industry logbooks. In future, alternative approaches such as Environmental Risk Assessments and electronic monitoring will play a greater role in monitoring catches and discards. Electronic monitoring has already been implemented in some Commonwealth fisheries, where new reporting systems are also being developed to help fishers begin to report on discards.

Steve Kennelly is also examining existing data and reporting systems in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory as the basis for recommendations on a national system. Some fisheries have detailed discard data, while others have virtually no data. “And there is everything in between,” he says. 

However, even where data is good, it is not yet linked into a consistent, public, national reporting framework, which could then feed more accurate information into global reports such as those produced by the FAO.

Steve Kennelly says establishing benchmarks for current levels of discards in each fishery will help managers, fishers and the public to track improvements. Evaluating the quality of the information available will also help track improvements in its reliability.

He suggests national reports may be produced once every five years or so. The FAO produces its global discards report once a decade, and its third report is underway, scheduled for release in 2017. He is overseeing the collection and analysis of data for the UN for countries in South Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, as well as global information on TEPS.

Depending on the fishery and the fisher’s gear type, a large proportion of discards could either be dead or in a poor condition with a low likelihood of survival when returned to the water. But fishing is not the only reason these animals die. From a management perspective, a key issue in evaluating discards involves quantifying natural mortality and predation on discarded species, against the mortality attributed to fishing impacts. With limited data, fisheries managers traditionally take a conservative approach in these assessments.

A senior research scientist with NSW Fisheries, Matt Broadhurst, defines the crux of the issue as “unaccounted fishing mortality” or “collateral mortality”: the animals that lose their life as a consequence of fishing activities, which must also be considered when setting fishing quotas of target species. 

Much of his research with NSW Fisheries has focused on reducing discards and improving the survival rates of discarded animals. However improving survival rates is a last resort, he says. Ideally, the most effective strategy is not to catch unwanted species at all. 

Strategic approaches

Fishers at YambaFishers at Yamba, on the Clarence River in NSW, are among those who changed their gear to improve fishing selectivity and reduce discards.
Photo: NSW Fisheries

There are three basic approaches to minimising discards.

The first approach is to avoid bycatch altogether. This is done through voluntary or compulsory closed seasons or closed waters to avoid catching fish or other species that will be discarded. This often includes closing water to fishing where there is a high likelihood of interactions with TEPS.

The second approach uses selective or alternative fishing equipment to reduce bycatch, by either preventing certain species from entering nets, or providing escape mechanisms for unwanted catch. Changed mesh sizes and net configurations, panels and grid inserts and new hook designs have all been introduced. 

In the NSW South West Rocks region, for example, beach seine fishers targeting Yellowfin Bream, Luderick and Tarwhine were concerned about large numbers of juvenile fish being caught in their nets. Successful trials resulted in legislated changes allowing fishers to increase their mesh size from 65 millimetres to 102 millimetres, which reduced the bycatch by as much as 80 per cent.

A third approach aims to create a value for bycatch that would otherwise be discarded, providing market incentives to retain more catch and discard less. A current FRDC-funded project, led by Ian Knuckey of Fishwell Consulting, is examining the potential marketability of bycatch fish species in the Great Australian Bight trawl fishery that have generally been discarded in the past (see story page 17).

Better survival

Another approach involves optimising the survival rates for discarded catch. Australia has been at the forefront of research into hoppers, or onboard containers of seawater, where the catch is held for sorting. While improving the quality of retained catch, hoppers also improve the survival of discards.

In recent research with prawn fishers in the NSW Clarence and Hunter rivers, Matt Broadhurst found hoppers provided significant improvements, particularly for juvenile prawns discarded. These made up about nine per cent of the catch, and survival rates rose from 70 to 90 per cent by using hoppers as part of the sorting process.

For fish bycatch, which can make up 10 to 20 per cent of the total catch, survival rates improved by almost 25 per cent, but total survival remained at less than 50 per cent.

Clarence River prawn fisher Don Johnson was one of those to take part in Matt Broadhurst’s research. He has adopted hoppers as part of his sorting process and also uses a grader that quickly separates the juvenile prawns from the catch. They are deposited into water that flows overboard back into the river estuary, which helps to maximise their survival.

He says several different gear changes adopted in the fishery during the past decade have also substantially reduced bycatch. Mandatory bycatch reduction devices in the nets allow larger fish to escape, and square mesh cod ends in the nets have also helped to reduce the number of juvenile prawns caught.

DiscardLess Consortium

In response to the introduction of a landings obligation in the European Union fisheries in 2013, a group of 31 research organisations from 12 countries across Europe have come together to form the DiscardLess consortium.  

The aim of the four-year, A$7.7 million project is to develop the knowledge, tools and methods to support practical and cost-effective discard mitigation strategies. More selective fishing gear and new markets for previously discarded fish will be major foci of the research. 

Australian fisheries scientist Steve Kennelly is a member of the external scientific advisory board for the DiscardLess consortium. He says the landings obligation is still being bedded down, with a staged introduction between 2014 and 2019 that is allowing different fisheries time to adjust. 

Finding new uses for fish that would otherwise have been discarded is a major research objective.

“In some fisheries it is a substantial amount of fish protein coming in that would otherwise have been discarded,” he says.

New processing facilities are being planned throughout Europe to cater for the expected increase in production of non-food products from juvenile or low-value fish, for uses ranging from fishmeal to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

FRDC Research Code: 2015-200, 2015-208, 2013-233

More information



Bycatch is a species that is (a) returned to the sea because it has no commercial value or because regulations preclude it being retained, or (b) is affected by interaction with the fishing gear but does not reach the vessel’s deck.

It includes:

Byproduct – a species taken incidentally in a fishery while fishing for another species. The species is retained for sale because it has commercial value, but usually does not contribute significantly to economic yield.

Discards – any part of the catch that is returned to the sea, whether dead or alive.

FRDC glossary

FRDC Research Codes: 2015-200, 2015-208, 2013-233

More information

Steve Kennelly,