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Hind-casting the quantity and composition of discards by mixed demersal fisheries in the North Sea

Heath, Michael R. and Cook, Robin M. (2015) Hind-casting the quantity and composition of discards by mixed demersal fisheries in the North Sea. PLoS One, 10 (3). pp. 1-35. ISSN 1932-6203

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Many commercial fisheries seek to maximise the economic value of the catch that they bring ashore and market for human consumption by discarding undersize or low value fish. Information on the quantity, size and species composition of discarded fish is vital for stock assessments and for devising legislation to minimise the practice. However, except for a few major species, data are usually extremely sparse and reliant on observers aboard a small sample of fishing vessels. Expanding these data to estimate total regional discards is highly problematic. Here, we develop a method for utilising additional information from scientific trawl surveys to model the quantities of fish discarded by the commercial fisheries. As a case-study, we apply the model to the North Sea over the period 1978-2011, and show a long-term decline in the overall quantity of fish discarded, but an increase in the proportion of catch which is thrown away. The composition of discarded catch has shifted from predominantly (~80%) undersized roundfish, to >50% flatfish. Undersized plaice constitute the largest single fraction of discards, unchanged from the beginning of the 20th century. Overall, around 60% of discarded fish are rejected on the basis of size rather than for reasons of species value or quota restrictions. The analysis shows that much more information can be gained on discarding by utilising additional sources of data rather than relying solely on information gathered by observers. In addition, it is clear that the reducing fishing intensity and rebuilding stocks is likely to be more effective at reducing discards in the long term, than any technical legislation to outlaw the practice in the short term.