Under the recently reformed European Commission Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the practice of discarding fish will be phased out, replaced instead with landing obligations. Under the landing obligation, all catches of regulated species must be landed and counted against quotas unless it has been scientifically proven that the species can survive the discarding process. Species that display a high level of discard survivability will be awarded an exemption, meaning that fishers can return these fish to the sea. Unregulated and protected species will continue to be released.

In November 2013, the European Commission's Science, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) appointed ICES to draw up scientific guidelines outlining best practice for conducting research in support of the "high survival" exemption to the landing obligation, leading to the establishment of ICES Workshop on Methods for Estimating Discard Survival (WKMEDS).

WKMEDS held its first meeting this week (17-21 February) in Copenhagen.

WKMEDS have assembled an international group to tackle what is an issue that has quickly become an area of intense interest in Europe. In addition to the European workshop members, scientists from the US, Canada, and Australia are excited to bring their experience to the process and are interested in learning from the developments being made. They also bring an international perspective to the work which is expected to advance quite rapidly because of the timeframe involved. (Landing obligations are to be introduced from 2015.) As work progresses a wider group of stakeholders – fisheries managers, members of the fishing industry – will also become involved. "It's an exciting time", state the workshop Chairs Michael Breen and Tom Catchpole, "this group will be central to an international community that are working together to address the important issue of discard survival." Techniques for estimating survival under review include captive observation, vitality assessment, and tagging and biotelemetry, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. By using a combination of techniques, as WKMEDS suggests, clear synergies can be achieved and challenges overcome.

Many of WKMEDS members are actively involved in survival work and they expect a surge in the number of projects in this field because of the change in CFP regulations. The restricted timeframe means that techniques and methods are going to be developing rapidly over the next few years.

The group's work is being carried out in stages. Initial guidance on the most appropriate methods for estimating discard survival will focus on captive observation, vitality assessment, and an integrated approach, available online in summer 2014. A more detailed review of tagging and biotelemetry methods, as well as data analysis will follow in the autumn. The final product will be available at the beginning of 2015.

After establishing a set of guidelines, WKMEDS will use them to assess the quality of the work already carried out and work to continually improve these studies - a cyclic process that will bring the community together and provide constructive advice. Once reliable estimates of mortality are established, the group will use them to try to define the key causes of discard mortality and provide advice on mitigation, with the aim of further improving the overall survival of the discarded catch, including non-regulated and protected species.

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