The science of sustainable seafood, explained

The 2016 Discard ban – Choking or Crying Wolf?

The 2016 Discard ban – Choking or Crying Wolf?

by Philip Taylor & Griffin Carpenter

2017 is set to be an exciting year for our fisheries and the sustainability of UK seas. Although the lobbying groups are focused on arguments over who will take control of the quota-cake following Brexit there are several other exciting changes coming which also deserve attention. First amongst them is the next phase of the Landing Obligation (LO), otherwise known the discard ban.

The discard ban requires EU boats to land all the fish they catch, effectively penalising the catching of undersized or unwanted fish (which now count against quota but can’t be sold) and banning practices such as “high grading” (where low value fish were thrown back in favour of catching larger, more valuable fish). Over the past several decades, fleets have been built up on business models and gear types that assume discarding and many fishers are therefore concerned that the new rules will cause a ‘choke’ of the industry, i.e. fisheries will exceed their quota in a bycatch species and not be able to fish for their target species in a mixed fishery.

The adoption of the ban is being phased in to avoid a massive market shock and we have already seen two phases, including pelagic fish in 2015 and some demersal species in 2016. As we progress into 2017 with a new suite of species added to the LO, we were interested to look at the data from 2016 to see if and how these chokes actually manifested themselves, specifically whether we saw more of the species being landed (as unwanted catch), and fewer being sold (because the fleet was choked).

The 2016 ban included relatively few species and stocks; haddock, nephrops, hake, sole, whiting, northern prawn, plaice and saithe, in a number of different fishery and gear type combinations. Exceptions were established to attempt to minimise the risk of a choke, including de minimis exceptions which allow small amounts of ‘unavoidable’ bycatch to continue and many considered this phase of the ban to include only ‘low hanging fruit’. However, concerns did exist in the fishing industry; In a presentation given in January 2016, the CEO of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association estimated the 2016 hake and saithe ban would effectively close those fisheries in March and July respectively. Similarly a Seafish report identified saithe and whiting as problems in the whitefish and seine fleets for 2016, cutting short the number of days fleets could spend at-sea. During the early part of 2016 there was also a lot of concern raised about the inclusion of haddock by the industry press (see Fishing News, Issue: 5292, 14 January 2016). In this assessment we investigate these four fisheries, and we focus on the UK fisheries.


To estimate how much was being landed up to the end of each year we have used Quota Uptake data published online by Defra (2014, 2015, 2016). These data clearly show that fears of an early closure due to a choke have not manifested themselves.

By the end of the year, saithe landings from the North-west Waters were very small, nearly all of the Scottish Producer Organisations had used up their whiting quota, hake landings in the North Sea had actually overshot the Quota Allocation in the week ending 20/12/2016 but quota swaps brought back in line at year end, and in the Irish Sea, haddock landings reached around 90% of the quota allocation. However, all four species were still being landed from both the North Sea and North Western Waters. In fact, other than an overshoot of 8.1% of the precautionary TAC for skates and rays (which is concerning but is outside the scope of this study), quota swaps made throughout the year allowed all fisheries to the end of December within the final quota allocations.

Notwithstanding this, there are some differences in overall landings between 2016 and previous years that deserve further investigation.

Defra figures show that 8,488 tonnes of saithe were landed from the North Sea, 2,770 from the West of Scotland and a further 118 tonnes from ICES area VII (western approaches, Irish Sea and the Channel), summing to a total of 11,376 tonnes in 2016. Landings in 2015 and 2014 were 12,331 and 12,105 respectively. 2016 therefore represented a 7.8% decrease since 2015 and a 6% decrease since 2014. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that North Sea landings slightly overshot quota in 2015 (103%; a <5% overshoot is permitted in special circumstances) before the LO came into force for the species, but were within quota in 2016 when the LO was effective.

Total annual landings by sea region, 2014 – 2016

Hake saw an increase in total landings of 1,374 tonnes (12.6%) between 2015 and 2016, and was up 24.8% since 2014. The majority of this change happened in the North Sea where landings increased by 69% (2,063 tonnes) in 2016. Landings in the North Sea were already growing gradually between 2014 and 2015, but such a massive increase in 2016 does suggest an abnormal situation, presumably a result of the LO. Landings from the other regions (West of Scotland, VII and VIII) were down but with less notable overall change.

30,983 tonnes of haddock were landed in 2016, this represents a 4% increase since 2015, but given it also represents a 10% decrease compared with 2014, it would seem likely that the fishery is quite variable and so the increase is within the normal variation. >90% of quota was used up in ICES area VII and landings made from this region saw a 9% increase on 2015.

Whiting landings were roughly comparable with 2015 and 2014, with only about a 725 tonne decrease between 2015 and 2016. Interestingly the landings from all of the North Western Waters stocks (where the LO was inforce) were less in 2016 than in both previous years.

Other than the substantial increase in the amount of North Sea Hake landed, there is little other evidence that 2016 represented an unusual year for the fishery in these year-end figures.

We also investigated the monthly landings data provided by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to see if there were any other clues about whether a choke had taken place. Using the monthly sea fisheries statistics we can calculate the amount of each species landed per month into UK ports since January 2014 and until October 2016 (data is only available with a two month lag) and the cumulative total throughout the year. The graphs below show how 2016 (red) compares with 2015 (dark grey) and 2014 (light grey) both in terms of total monthly landings, and the cumulative total through the year.

Monthly and cumulative landings (tonnes) per month (red = 2016, dark grey = 2015, light grey = 2014)

Landings of all three species continued throughout the year, and at a fairly steady rate. The cumulative landings do not show any of the fisheries hitting a limit, which we might have expected were the fishery choked. We also do not see the amount of landings growing significantly more rapidly in 2016 than in previous years, which again, we might have expected if large amounts of fish that was previously discarded was now being landed.

Other than May and June, every monthly total hake landing was greater in 2016 than either of the two previous years. Given that the end of year total North Sea landings were substantially increased, it is probable that this increase was also related to landings from that region.

Saithe landings were comparable with 2015 and 2014 landings in most months, but were substantially less in April and September. During the first four months of the year haddock landings were less than 2014 and 2015. However, the landings appeared to recover to figures very similar to previous years from May onwards. Whiting landings did appear to slow toward the end of 2016.

Unfortunately the small sample sizes (one monthly value to compare with two previous years) precludes much statistical analysis. However, a quick paired t-test comparing each year’s’ monthly landings shows that 2016 landings of saithe, haddock and whiting were not statistically different from either 2015 or 2014 (p-value > 0.05). 2016 hake landings were not significantly different from those of 2015 (p-value = 0.14) but they were when compared with those made in 2014 (p-value <0.01).

Other than the larger than normal landing totals, these data do not shows any evidence of changes caused by the 2016 discard ban. However, they do not show the quality of the landings, and it might have been the case that much of these landed fish were undersized or otherwise unsuitable for sale. We therefore also looked into what trends were apparent in the market data.


Comprehensive and up to date data on the total amount of fish sold in the UK are again not readily available. However, some markets such as Peterhead, publish the amount of boxes for sale online and daily. Peterhead Market does not exclusively sell fish caught in UK waters or by UK vessels, and may not represent a constant share of the UK fish market. However, it is the largest fish market in the UK and, because it was the only data with an archive available, we are making the assumption that the amount and timing of non-UK fish being brought to the market is constant between years.

Total annual boxes of selected species sold per year at Peterhead Market

Peterhead market data show a 48% increase in the amount of hake sold since 2015, a 32% increase in the amount of whiting sold and 24,490 more boxes of saithe sold in 2016 compared with 2015. Due to a data error, whiting data were only available for 2016 and 2015.

The market records haddock in three different size groups; Large & medium combined, Small, and Small Round (i.e. whole, unprepared fish). Given this size differentiation might reveal consequences of the high grading ban I have not to grouped these data and will continue to analyse them as separate groups. 113,265 boxes of large and medium haddock were sold through the market in 2016 along with 201,884 boxes of small haddock and 47,040 boxes of small round haddock. These numbers show a small increase (6,621; +6%) in the amount of medium and large sold compared with 2015 and also an increase of around 31,000 (+18%) in the amount of small haddock boxes sold. The data also show a 28,000 box decrease (-37%) in the amount of small round haddock sold over this same period so it seems likely that these changes are related, and just an artefact of the fact that vessels are choosing to prepare fish before taking them to market, so selling the same fish under different classifications.I assumed that the monthly landings are parametric following a quick examination of the data. The same might not be true for other, more seasonal fisheries, for example.

Number of boxes sold per month at Peterhead Market (red = 2016, dark grey = 2015, light grey = 2014)

The market data are available daily and therefore allow a proper assessment of whether the number of boxes brought to market each day was significantly different between years. Given the market data are zero-inflated (i.e. there are many days when no boxes are landed) we used a nonparametric two-tailed Mann-Whitney U-test to test for significance. Grouping to months to account for seasonal variation, we can assess whether there is any significant difference in the number of boxes sold per day in 2016 compared with 2015 and 2014 combined. Graphs below show the range of boxes sold per day in each month, P-values are presented in the graphs above each month’s data and presented in red where they are significant (i.e. p-value < 0.5).

Number of boxes sold per day in 2016 (red) versus 2015 (dark grey) and 2014 (light grey)

Whiting sales were all comparable with 2015, there was no significant change.

Hake sales were also comparable apart from August, January and February – August 2016 saw significantly more boxes sold than the same month in 2014 and 2015 (p-value = <0.05); in contrast January and February saw significantly fewer.

Saithe sales in February, March and May were significantly more in 2016 than in previous years, in all other months they were unchanged. This increased market volume might be showing that the North Sea boats were landing more than normal in those months, potentially as a result of the LO but given it reverted to normality later in the year it would seem unlikely.

The number of large & medium haddock boxes being sold between January and March 2016 was significantly more than 2014 and 2015 (p-values <0.05). Given the new illegality of high grading, we might have expected there to be significantly more small haddock being sold. However, the number of small haddock sold was only significantly increased in November, and sales of small round haddock were significantly less throughout March, April, August and September.


Overall the data presented here show that the fears of a 2016 choke in the UK hake, saithe, whiting and haddock fisheries did not come to pass.

There is no evidence of a more rapid uptake of quota in 2016 than in previous years, which we might have expected if significantly more fish were being caught and landed due to the ban. Whilst this report has been in draft, some have suggested that one reason for this might be because discarding has continued illegally in some areas or not enforced by fisheries control areas. However, it has not been within the remit of this report to investigate such claims and the results for hake would suggest that the ban has been implemented for that species.

Overall annual landings for hake and haddock were up on 2015, saithe and whiting landings were marginally down. Hake landings have been increasing for some time, however, given that 2016 landings in the North Sea saw a 69% increase, it is reasonable to consider the changes a result of the discard ban and the quota swaps which were made by the UK to address the larger than normal landings caused by the discard ban.

Annual sales of all three of these species at Peterhead market were up on 2015. This was most significantly for hake, which saw a 48% increase. Whiting saw a 32% increase, saithe a 22% increase and medium and large haddock a 6% increase. There was a significant change in the number of both small and small round haddock sold. However, it seems likely that this was due to a change in practice which sees more small round haddock being prepared (and therefore sold as “small”) before being taken to market.

The number of hake sold at Peterhead market in the first two months of the year was significantly less than in 2015 and 2014. The reasons for this are unclear. The number of large and medium haddock sold at the market in the first three months of the year was significantly more than in 2015 and 2014. Again, the reasons for this are not clear.

Peterhead might not be the only example of a market impacted by the 2016 discard ban and might not be the best case study – the Dutch plaice and sole fishery and the Spanish hake fishery also deserve attention. However, data for these were not available for our assessment.

Overall, fisheries catching and markets selling hake, saithe and haddock appear to have not been significantly impacted by the 2016 LO rules. This might be thanks to the fact that the exceptions and derogations given allowed those fisheries with highest discard rates to continue, but may also be a result of well thought out quota swaps made throughout the year and improved selectivity and avoidance achieved by the fleets.

Although the 2017 LO rules are stricter and many are still concerned about choke species, the evidence presented here suggests that the fisheries will be able to adapt to the rules and continue to land and bring fish to market effectively.

Philip Taylor is the Campaign Manager for Open Seas. He has worked as a marine policy officer across the U.K. You can follow him on twitter here.
Griffin Carpenter is an Economic Modeller at the New Economics Foundation. A full list of his publications can be found here. You can follow him on twitter here.

Share this story:


Subscribe to our newsletter:

Read more:

3 Responses

  1. Dear Authors

    I was interested to read your report on the issue of choke species in 2016; I am concerned that you imply that someone was “crying wolf”.

    You should have been aware that since the discard ban in respect of whiting, hake and saithe did not apply to the vast majority of the Scottish demersal fleet in 2016 there could be no choking by these stocks; Mike Park’s presentation did nit predict that these stocks would cause choking specifically in 2016. Additionally, high-grading has been banned for several years and the 2016 haddock TAC was far in excess of the fleets requirements so there was no risk of choking there either.

    You should also note that the records of the market sales at Peterhead do not represent all the fish landed at Peterhead; a significant but varying amount of fish is sold direct to local processors for example. Also, there has been a significant increase in landings at Peterhead by Norwegian vessels over recent years which is not included in the DEFRA statistics but is included in the market sttistics; hake and saithe feature high in these landings.

    Robert Stevenson

    1. Dear Mr Stevenson,

      Thanks for your message and interest in our analysis. Apologies for the delayed response, I have only just discovered this reply under the article. I will attempt to address each of your questions in turn, in reverse order.

      I totally concede that one port’s sales data might not always reflect sales made by all Scottish or UK vessels. However, given that complete sales data is not publicly accessible and that Peterhead is the UK’s largest fish market, we have assumed it is representative of wider sales and that any choked fishery would have been reflected by a significant change in the amount of a species sold in the Peterhead market. Very interested to hear about the increase in Norwegian landings. The data show an increase in hake landings in Aug – Nov, do you think this could be a result of the Norwegian landings, and if so is there any reason why this would be specific to these months?

      As a member of the audience during Mike Park’s presentation, and having asked follow up questions, it was my interpretation that the presentation inferred fisheries would be choked in 2016. That said, if Mr Park did not intend to make predictions for 2016 I would be interested to ask which year he was predicting for?

      Regarding the fact that Scottish whiting, hake and saithe fisheries were mainly excluded, as well as the fact that high grading has been illegal for some time and that haddock TACs were so large that a choke was unlikely, the point of the analysis was not to test whether these facts were true, rather it was to test whether claims about fisheries being choked (made in spite of these concessions) had been accurate. As you can see, we concluded they were not. The monthly landings data does not provide enough information to separate those which were included in the 2016 rules but I will happily have a look at rerunning the analysis on when the annual data (which should contain enough information, e.g. on gear type) is available, I’ll share when I do.

      Regarding the title, choking up or crying wolf, it was a little provocative. However, Aesop’s fable ended with the wolf finally turning up, no one believing the boy on account of his prior claims, sheep and boy being eaten, and a sad tale for all involved (except perhaps the wolf). Hopefully no one will be eaten by the time the discard ban comes into full force, but given that big challenges are still to come I think it is important we move forward with the ban with evidence and honesty. Since writing this piece, several people have spoken to me about vessels that continue to discard catches that are currently included in the LO – one explanation for why a choke did not occur. If the public knew this was happening – or worse, if they knew that it was happening by a fleet also claiming uplift quota – I think we could find ourselves in a very wolfish situation.

      With best regards,

      Phil Taylor

  2. You write: “and banning practices such as “high grading””. This however has been banned without much effect since 2002. This shows the scale of the problem, now that even lower valued fish counting on the quota holding must be landed. The incentive is rather obvious.

    The solution is smart management and proper documentation aligned with market requirements. The first consists of the ”choke solution hierarchy”: Establish a real-time ”fish-forecast”, use Reg 1380/2013 ”whereas” no 8 as much as possible, trans-national, in-year quota leasing, year-to-year flexibility, quota transferability, and accountability = full documentation of catches or fleet adjusted buffers set aside to cover estimated discards (ICES). Finally allow for free choice of fishing method as long as catches are acocunted for.
    The second consist of retailers asking for ”compliance confirmation”, implementation of traceability in the Control Reg 1224/2009 article 58 – and due for the year 2012! Include Remote Electronic Monitoring in the traceability chain and ask MSC if they are considering bringing their standard to par with the reformed CFP’s: full accountability and ”accurate documentation”.

Leave a Reply

Ray Hilborn's every-so-often newsletter

The best way to keep up with our stories.