Celebrity Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Big Fish Fight on Channel 4 has once again highlighted the bizarre state of affairs regarding the EU's fisheries policy.
Discards is the term used to describe amongst other things fish that are captured by fishermen, but have to be thrown back into the sea, probably dead, because they do not comply with a range of "conservation" rules imposed by Brussels.
Commissioner Maria Damanaki, who leads DG Mare, Europe's Fisheries Directorate, has stated time and time again her goal of eliminating discards from Europe's fisheries. Yet it is the very rules and regulations imposed by her officials that contribute to the problem the commissioner wants to eliminate.
Channel 4's series has focused on fisheries in the North Sea and further afield. So what is the position in the Irish Sea?
The whole focus of fisheries management revolves around cod. In 2010 the European Commission's scientific advice described cod in the Irish Sea as a fishery in a state of collapse. This came after 11 years of EU driven 'cod recovery measures'.
Our fishermen would vehemently deny this catastrophic position and would point out it is impossible to provide evidence to counter this accusation and determine stock size when they are not allowed to capture and land the fish at our local ports.
How can they prove there is more cod in the Irish Sea when the EU has reduced the amount of cod they can bring ashore by over 90% in the past 10 years and reduce the time fishermen can spend at sea?
At the same time the evidence Europe uses to determine the management of cod in the Irish Sea has suggested 80%-plus of all cod captured by Northern Irish fishermen in the area is discarded. In 2007 our fishermen, in cooperation with Agri-food and Biosciences Institute fisheries scientists, embarked on a new programme to determine the actual figure, based less on scientific fiction and more on scientific fact. They had to wait until towards the end of 2010 until the first results were unveiled. However, they were worth waiting on because instead of discarding more than 80% of cod the actual figure was 2%. A tremendous result, but achieved by our fishermen only after enduring a lot of pain at the hand of Europe's fisheries policy.
So what was the result? Overall the EU's December Fisheries Council did deliver a better outcome than anticipated, but no one has claimed it was a good result. The cod plan agreed in November 2008 stipulated the amount of cod landed from the Irish Sea would be cut by another 25% for 2011 and regretfully this is what happened. What does this mean for discards? Quite simply the remarkably low discard figures for cod will now start to increase again. It means an extra 25% of this valuable fish landed in Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie during 2010 will have to be dumped or discarded in 2011.
Hence my description of Europe's fisheries policy as 'bizarre'.
And hence why our fishermen tend to agree with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Big Fish Fight.
For too long our fishing industry has been the victim of a policy that makes fishermen out to be rogues and villains. International campaigns, sometimes selfishly motivated for financial reasons, seek to vilify fishermen and have tended to go unchallenged.
As a new year in the European Parliament begins and the review of Europe's fisheries policy reaches its climax let us hope that the momentum created by the aptly named Big Fish Fight can be maintained and the positive aspects of Northern Ireland's fishing industry can be recognised.