European fishermen may be banned from throwing a million ton of fish overboard every year to stay within EU quotas following a campaign by the television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries minister, will unveil a proposal to ban the practice of “discards” which as arisen as a bizarre consequence of a quota system designed to conserve fish stocks by preventing over-fishing.
Officials are bowing to pressure for reform of Europe’s fishing industry after more than 650,000 people signed a petition calling for “discards” to be banned following a series of programmes publicising the issue on Channel 4.
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight series disclosed that around half of the fish caught in the North Sea are thrown back into the ocean dead because fishermen are afraid of exceeding their quotas.
His campaign to stop the bizarre "conservation" practice won the backing of celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais, Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Paxman.
In his contribution to the campaign, Paxman wrote: “If this is conservation, then I’m the Mad Hatter.”
Under Europe’s landing quota system, fishermen are required to throw back any fish that are too young, overfished or for which they have no quota.
In mixed fisheries, it can be impossible for fishermen to control the species that they catch in their nets.
The result is that thousands of tons of overfished cod are thrown back every year so fishermen can continue trawling for more prolific species such as haddock. The vast majority of the discarded fish die.
A study by the United Nations Agriculture Organisation estimated that 1.3 million tons of fish and other marine animals are thrown back every year – amounting to 13pc of all catches.
Mrs Damanaki’s proposal suggests that all catches should be landed and counted against quota. It is believed to be backed by Richard Benyon, Britain’s fishing minister, as well as the Danish, German, French and Belgian ministers.
But the policy is understood to be opposed by Spain and other southern European countries because the reforms could mean fishermen would have to stop fishing when they have reached their quota for a particular species to avoid catching it accidentally.
There are also concerns over the possible enforcement measures, which could include installing CCTV on all vessels or employing observers to ensure fishermen do not discard fish illegally.
But Henrik Hoegh, the Danish food minister, welcomed the proposed changes. "Fish is a common property and a common concern and society now wants a say," he said.