Cascading ecological effects of eliminating fishery discards

Michael R. Heath, Robin M. Cook, Angus I. Cameron, David J. Morris, Douglas C. Speirs

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Discarding by fisheries is perceived as contrary to responsible harvesting. Legislation seeking to end the practice is being introduced in many jurisdictions. But, discarded fish are food for a range of scavenging species so ending discarding may have ecological consequences. Here we investigate the sensitivity of ecological effects to discarding policies using an ecosystem model of the North Sea - a region where 30-40% of trawled fish catch is currently discarded. We show that landing the entire catch whilst fishing as usual has conservation penalties for seabirds, marine mammals and seabed fauna, and no benefit to fish stocks. However, combining landing obligations with changes in fishing practices to limit the capture of unwanted fish results in trophic cascades that can benefit birds, mammals and most fish stocks. Our results highlight the importance of considering the broader ecosystem consequences of fishery management policy, since species interactions may dissipate or negate intended benefits.
Original languageEnglish
Article number3893
Number of pages8
JournalNature Communications
Publication statusPublished - 13 May 2014


  • fisheries
  • discards
  • modelling
  • North Sea
  • fishery management


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