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When will the UK governments roll out fishing vessel monitoring given the benefits for wildlife, fishers and the consumer?

WWF policy advisor Mario Ray explores how applying technology known as Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras on fishing vessels would be a win-win-win for wildlife, fishers and the consumer. This follows the Future Fisheries Alliance’s call for improved at-sea monitoring across vessels fishing in UK waters (read their latest report TransparentSea) which received a boost last month when Natural England recommended the immediate roll-out of this technology to vessels that have the highest impact on our seas.

October 2022

The UK’s fishing industry has long been a fundamental part of vibrant coastal communities, providing livelihoods to many and food to feed us, from Cullen Skink on a cold winter’s evening to scampi and chips by the sea.

However, our seas, wildlife and the fishers whose livelihoods are dependent upon healthy marine ecosystems, are suffering. International marine biodiversity targets have not been met and the UK, as a whole, has failed to meet 11 out of the 15 indicators for achieving Good Environmental Status (GES). Commercial fishing continues to be the most widespread pressure on the marine environment, but it also has real opportunity to provide solutions and help recover our seas if done sustainably.

Meanwhile, for fishers, uncertainties regarding market access and the increase in fuel prices have resulted in unemployment and family upheavals; with some fishers tying up their boats for good and having to relocate their families in search of alternative employment. It is a turbulent time for the fishing industry and they need to be given certainty.

The Discard Ban

For many years one of the key concerns over the impacts of fishing on biodiversity was the wasteful nature of many fisheries in which significant amounts of unwanted fish were dumped back into the sea, a process known as discarding.

A discard ban was introduced with the hope that it would incentivise more selective fishing and less discarding. However, an obstacle to investing in highly selective fishing gear is that it comes at a cost. The cost of the gear itself which can run into the tens of thousands and the cost of some marketable fish that pass through the ‘selective’ gear. While some complied and invested in new gear, others continued to operate with business as usual. Without the level playing field, which would have been achieved with robust monitoring, it created a competitive advantage for those that continued to discard.

A game-changing technology is ready for roll-out

Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras is a powerful and cost-effective tool that answers three fundamental questions: where/when boats are fishing, how they are fishing and most importantly, what is being removed from the water.

People are increasingly concerned with the provenance of their seafood, and the impact it has on marine wildlife. REM enables fishers to demonstrate to the public and retailers that they are operating in a sustainable way, using best practice and highest levels of selectivity.

REM would also empower fishers by putting them at the heart of the data collection process, bridging the gap between them and fisheries managers. Claims that catch quotas are out of touch with what fishers are seeing in their nets need to be addressed. The ‘fish-counting’ cameras provide fishers with an opportunity to document what they are seeing and feed into the science of quota setting.

UK governments must seize the opportunity

Following Britain’s departure from the EU, UK governments are developing new ‘catching’ policies.

Accountability and confidence will be central principles of these new policies, however, without equipping vessels with the tools they need to provide the required levels of at-sea monitoring these policies will fall short of their objectives.

Last month, one of the UK government’s own statutory bodies, Natural England, released a report recommending the immediate roll-out of REM to the ‘highest risk’ fleets such as demersal trawls to: 1) help promote compliance; 2) collect data for data-poor fisheries; 3) protect sensitive species; and 4) contribute to achieving GES.

It was disappointing that UK governments did not take the opportunity to commit to rolling out REM across the UK fishing fleet when they produced the draft Joint Fisheries Statement. However, there is still an opportunity, as the final version of the JFS has yet to make an appearance. All four governments can still provide a unified voice in support of REM with cameras being a key element of fishing in UK waters.

Whatever changes are implemented in UK governments’ individual plans or 'catching policies’, we believe that the degree to which they are underpinned by robust at-sea monitoring with cameras will be a defining factor in achieving sustainable fisheries in the UK.

The question is - when will the UK governments step up and roll-out REM to the highest-risk fleets and embrace the benefits that REM brings for wildlife, fishers and the consumer?

Mario Ray is a Policy Advisor at WWF-UK, follow @WWF_UK

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.