FAO Fisheries Department - Committee on Fisheries
December 1996 COFI/97/Inf.7


Twenty-second Session
Rome, Italy 17-20 March 1997


1.    It is becoming increasingly clear that the world's fishery resources are being subjected to exploitation at or above their capacity to produce maximum sustainable yields. In addition, in the face of rising world population, FAO has projected a growing gap between supply and demand which may have the effect of promoting increased fishing pressure and substantially increasing fish prices. The immediate result could be a reduction in the availability of fish to large numbers of poorer consumers in developing countries, to whom fish is a traditional and culturally satisfying source for a major portion of their animal protein supplies. At the same time as these trends are being felt, there is a very large wastage of fishery resources from discarding unwanted catches at sea. International concern has been rising, both among the public and in environmental groups. This is reflected by the inclusion of the issue in an increasing number of international resolutions: UN General Assembly Resolutions 49/118 (1994) and 50/25 (1995); the Rome Consensus on World Fisheries, March 1995; the International Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, adopted by the FAO Conference, Rome, October 1995 and the Kyoto Declaration and Plan of Action which emerged from the International Conference on the Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security, December 1995. It seems certain that this level of international concern will continue to grow and that the technical and general press will continue to focus attention on the issue.

2.    In addition to the above resolutions, there are a number of obligations imposed on countries by the United Nations Agreement for the conservation and management of straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks (August 1995).

3.    The suggestion in a recent FAO Fishery Technical Paper (No 339) that about 27 million tons, ranging between 18 and 39 million tons, of fish per year may be discarded at sea, in pursuit of the total annual marine capture fishery for direct human consumption of about 50 million tons, has brought the problem home to the public at large. As part of the response the Government of Japan hosted a Technical Consultation on the Reduction of Wastage in Fisheries in collaboration with FAO. The Consultation was held in Tokyo from 28 October to 1 November 1996 and set outto refine the earlier estimates as well as to discuss solutions to the issues of wastage. The discussions and conclusions of the Consultation are reflected in this information paper.


4.    A variety of terms has been used in the literature related to wastage in fisheries and there have been many attempts at definition. The term "bycatch" has been used in scientific and popular literature for more than half a century and has been subject to a variety of interpretations, some of which are overlapping or contradictory. It can best be used as a generic term, applying to that part of the catch made up of non-target species or species assemblages but, when dealing with a specific portion of the catch in fisheries management terms, it is better to give a more precise definition. The "total catch" is that quantity taken by the fishing gear and which reaches the deck of the fishing vessel. "Discards" is that portion thrown away at sea (for one reason or another). The remainder is the "landed catch" or "retained catch" (i.e. that which is brought ashore) which can be further sub-divided into "target catch" and "incidental catch" bearing in mind that the same species can move from one category to another depending on size, market demand, season or other criteria, at the same time other species may be undesirable or of limited value.


5.    A responsible approach to the issue of wastage is essential for the future sustainability of fisheries. This will produce benefits to fisheries managers, consumers and the industry, all of whom must find a role in the co-operative management of fisheries. No simple solution can be envisaged to the problem of discards and wastage in fisheries and any approach will have to be multidisciplinary. A lasting solution can only be brought about by improved fisheries management. Such measures must be cost effective and feasible within the fishery to be sustainable and, in developing the strategies, involvement of the fishing industry is essential. Technology can provide solutions, however, it can, and must, be supported by appropriate management action.

6.    Management measures to reduce wastage may include policies on banning discards and measures reducing the probability to catch undesired sizes and species such as: closed seasons, closed areas, legal minimum mesh size and fish size, etc. Efforts should also be made to promote effective use of the catch currently discarded. The use of incentives to reduce waste and the relative success of various management measures, or difficulties in their implementation, together with the level of acceptability to industry and the community must also be considered.


7.    Based on the above definitions, the Technical Consultation held in Japan reviewed the earlier estimate of about 27 million tons per year, which relates to the late 1980's and early 1990's, and attempted to assess the current situation. There are thought to be several factors which might have contributed to an over-assessment of discards for the earlier period. These include: an under-estimate of retention of incidental catches in tropical shrimp fisheries; extrapolation of questionable discard rates to fisheries for which discard information was missing, particularly between regions, and; application of discard rates to some marine fish landings that have catch components taken in other fisheries - mainly tropical shrimp fisheries. However, other factors contributed to under-estimates, such as lack of information on discards from recreational and subsistence fisheries, under-reporting in log books and illegal fishing.

8.    Available data for 1994-1995 suggest a significant reduction in discards has occurred between the mid-80's and the mid-90's as a result of: a) decline in the levels of fishing, b) time/area closures, c) new or more selective harvest and utilization technologies, d) greaterutilization for human consumption and feed for aquaculture and livestock, e) enforcement of prohibition on discarding by some countries and f) a more progressive attitude of fishery managers, user groups and society to the need to resolve problems resulting from discarding. The magnitude of the decline has not been quantified but indications are that the annual discard figure is now of the order of 20 million tons, or the lower end of the range estimated in Technical Paper No.339. Further reductions are possible and desirable, but some level of discarding will always be a feature of fisheries, regardless of gear.


9.    There is clearly a need for the collection of better data on discards, but it should also be noted that examination of the magnitude of total discards can miss catches of reptiles, mammals, birds and some fish species of special concern that are associated with particular fishing gears and locations. Discard information for subsistence fisheries world-wide is generally poor or totally absent, but the practice is thought to be negligible. Likewise, there is little or no information available for recreational fisheries, where substantial quantities may be discarded. In the context of international fisheries statistics, it should be noted that, while target and incidental catches are recorded, discards and other fishing induced fishing mortalities, which may be substantial, are not.


10.    There have been successful introductions of efficient selective fishing gear and harvesting practices, which seem to have lead to reduction in discards in the fisheries concerned. These include:

11.    It is apparent, however, that these techniques are not universally applicable and further efforts are required to develop suitable gear and gear modifications for fisheries with high discards.


12.    Whilst elimination of discards altogether is an unrealistic goal, the use of discards as a potential source of food will continue to have a role to play in elimination of wastage. Of particular concern is shrimp trawling in tropical waters which produces high discard ratios and contributes, in absolute terms, a high volume to bycatch and discards. The location of many of these fisheries in waters adjacent to countries with low incomes and food deficits may make use of discards for human food a priority, where consistent with good management practices. It is recognized, however, that there are particular problems associated with the use of shrimp bycatch. The catch consists of a large number of small fish of many species, which makes conventional methods of utilization problematical. Previous attempts at technology-led utilization programmes have generally not lead to long term solutions, particularly with regard to economic viability. Recent trends however seem to indicate that, driven by increased human population, shortage of fish supplies from conventional sources and, notably, the growth of aquaculture, more previously discarded bycatch is now being used either directly as human food or in aquaculture or animal feedindustries. The trend in recent years has, therefore, been towards greater utilization with previously discarded fish species entering the food chain as incidental catch. This catch may in future become the target of particular fisheries, illustrating that the diversity of fish species with potential food use should not be overlooked in the debate on reduction of wastage and the more selective targeting of specific fish species.


13.    Conclusions and specific requirements for action are presented below under a number of headings.

Improved management

14.    Programmes to reduce bycatch, waste and discards in fisheries, with reasonable targets, should be designed, in an integrated fashion, as a component of a comprehensive management regime for the implementation of the conservation and management measures contained in the Agreement on straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks and the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

15.    Efforts should be made to carry out research on the impact of fishing and fishing induced mortality on ecosystems, economic analyses of various fishing scenarios, as well as setting reasonable targets of discards which could be attained in different fisheries.

Better Information

16.    More accurate information on discards and incidental catches should be included in the collection of catch data. Data on discards should be collected nationally for individual fisheries and then collated by FAO, and published.

17.    Greater efforts should be made to collect information on all sources of mortality in species of special concern, in order to assist in the assessment of the effect of fishing on their populations.

Technical Measures

18.    There is a need for research into the selectivity of fishing gear, particularly of trawls used in tropical industrial fisheries, to reduce growth over-fishing of the major commercial species and optimize the return from the resource. For the introduction of selective fishing gear, the following steps are advisable:

19.    However it should be noted that excessive pursuance of gear selectivity in order to avoid bycatch species may lead to change in the species composition in the given ecosystem and eventually cause the ecosystem to change. Therefore, research is required to evaluate the effect of actions to limit discards. Considerations should include the bioenergetics of various utilization scenarios, the socio-economic benefits and costs of utilization versus discarding, as well as the impact on food security.