Rules designed to protect fish stocks are failing to have an impact, leaving vessels free to discard unwanted catch, according to a report.

Six months after the EU fish discards ban took full effect, neither the UK Government nor any of the devolved administrations know the extent of compliance with the landing obligation, a House of Lords Committee has concluded.

In the absence of any sign of enforcement it is likely illegal discarding of fish at sea is still be taking place. Meanwhile the UK Government’s approach of offering “incentives for compliance” gives the wrong message that following the rules is voluntary.

The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee says the expectation that vessels and their owners would face problems under the law and over quotas has not been borne out.

The Committee has heard evidence that if the landing obligation were being followed, some vessels would have to stop fishing half way through the year. It was also told that storage and supply chains would struggle to cope with a glut of undersized fish being brought to shore.

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Neither of these warnings have come to pass, the Committee says, suggesting boats are continuing to discard fish illegally and governments have not got a handle on the problem despite a six year lead-in period to the introduction of the ban.

In its report The EU Fisheries Landing Obligation: Six Months On, the committee highlights scientific advice that unless the ban is enforced, long term damage to fish stocks could pose a serious threat to the fishing industry.

The report notes that the UK fisheries minister Robert Goodwill has described discards as “environmental vandalism” yet the Government Given the important ecological reasons behind the introduction of the ban the Committee says it is “concerning” that the Government believes illegal discarding is taking place, but does not know the extent of the problem.

The report calls for compulsory remote electronic monitoring on all vessels fishing in UK waters after Brexit, and efforts to track the use of more efficient nets and other gear to promote more selective catching. It also calls for greater cooperation with other EU countries and the European Commission to enforce bycatch quotas.

The Committee also raise concerns that the scale of exemptions that have been granted mean they are undermining the aim of the landing obligation. Lord Teverson, Chair of the Sub-Committee said: “In failing to collect data on selectivity, in failing to assess compliance before granting quota uplifts, and in failing to require remote electronic monitoring, Government is allowing this now illegal fishing practice to go unchecked.

“It is wholly inappropriate that the Minister viewed incentives as a viable solution to increase compliance amongst fishers: it sends the wrong message that abiding by the law is voluntary.”

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He said ministers had been tempted to make decisions based on short-term economic benefits rather than long-term sustainability, adding: “Good progress has been made in recent years to improve the health of fish stocks in EU waters. But... unless the discard ban is properly implemented and enforced the UK’s fishing industry could in the future find itself with nothing left to fish.”

The EU landing obligation aims to protect fish stocks, and the wider marine environment, by requiring fishers to land all fish caught (and be counted against their quota) rather than discarding unwanted fish overboard. Introduced following the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall’s ‘Fish Fight’ campaign it has been introduced gradually since 2015 and came into force in full in January.HeraldScotland: Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's FederationBertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation

But industry representatives insist it cannot be enforced effectively without significant harm to fishing businesses.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “The simple truth about the landings obligation is that it is a set of totally contradictory rules imposed by the EU which utterly fails to align fishing opportunity with the distribution of stocks.

“This has been pointed out by the industry to the European Commission and the UK and Scottish governments ad nauseam and they understand the predicament of fishermen.

“It will be up to those governments post-Brexit to devise a system of practicable regulations that achieve the objective of ending discards without tying the industry up in knots and the fishing fleet at the quayside.”

A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs said:“This government is fully committed to sustainable fishing, including ending the wasteful discarding of fish. 

“We continue to work with the industry to promote awareness of the new requirements and have stepped up enforcement to ensure fish caught are landed and accurately recorded. Once we leave the EU will have the flexibility to introduce other measures to ensure the sustainability of our fish stocks.”