Sea fisheries: discards advice and guidance

Information about landing obligation and discards.

Discard advice and guidance

Scottish discard rates are collected by Marine Scotland Science and are provided to ICES for their stock assessments.

The ICES discard rates are averages of discard data from all Member States.  Discard rates in other Member States may be very different from Scottish discard rates. For example, we discard small quantities of plaice, but other Member States discard very large amounts of it. Equally, Scottish vessels discard large volumes of saithe, but other Member States discard very low amounts.

Currently, in order to establish the total mortality on the stock ICES will estimate how much fish will be discarded for a given level of landings.  As discarding is illegal under a landing obligation (beyond permitted exemptions) the proportion of the TAC originally held back to cover discards can be added to the quota made available to land catch.


At a European level, any additional quota accruing from the discard transfer will be allocated by Relative Stability. This may be subject to change after the 31st December 2021

All catches of quota species must be landed and counted against quota. If a skipper catches in excess of his quota then he, or his PO, must source additional quota to cover his landings. It will be for the PO to consider which sanctions to take against the vessel. Existing quota management sanctions will be levelled against POs who overshoot their allocated quota.

Force majeure represents a situation in which circumstances beyond the control of the vessel and crew prevent compliance with the landing obligation, for example significant mechanical failures or very poor weather. It is not anticipated that force majeure will be a regular occurrence. Lack of available quota is not a legitimate reason for force majeure.

Situations relating to force majeure must be fully documented and submitted to Marine Scotland Compliance who will ascertain the legitimacy of the claim.


Since 2019 the full landing obligation has been in place; meaning, vessels of all gear types will have to land all catches of quota species and count the landings against quota.

Non-quota species such as gurnards, lobsters or pipefish can continue to be discarded. Prohibited species will have to be discarded.

As discarded fish provide a food source for a range of scavenging species, the landing obligation is likely to reduce this food supply. However, the discarding of offal at sea, which constitutes a food supply to scavenging species, can continue and it will also remain legal to discard non-quota and prohibited species.  Therefore the food supply will not be totally diminished.

Research carried out at the University of Plymouth in collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, concluded that bird species tend to be resilient and should adapt by switching to alternative food sources over time. The phased introduction of the landing obligation between 2015 and 2019 will assist with this transition. Improvements in fishing selectivity are also generally understood to bring strong benefits for birds, mammals and most fish stocks.


It is for the master of the vessel to best determine how to maintain vessel stability. It will be important to try and minimise unwanted catch through selectivity measures. Where unwanted catch is unavoidable, the master of the vessel should take account of safety and stability on board by managing the volume of hauls per trip.


All catch landed can be sold commercially for profit. If a skipper catches in excess of his quota then he, or his PO, must source additional quota to cover his landings. It will be for the PO to consider which sanctions to take against the vessel. Existing quota management sanctions will be levelled against POs who overshoot their allocated quota.

Processing at sea

Processing at sea can continue as normal. It will remain legal to discard offal at sea (for example, prawn tails and fish guts).

Prohibited species

The same rules will apply as now - prohibited species must be discarded.

Seal-damaged fish

Catches of predator-damaged fish can be returned to sea.


High Survivability and De minimis exemptions can be applied for through the Discard Plans. Exemptions are based upon scientific evidence that demonstrates high survival rates.  These differ from year to year and separate guidance will be issued to fishermen on these.

Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS)

Minimum Conservation Reference Size (MCRS) replaces the existing Minimum Landing Sizes (MLS). Fish below the MCRS must be landed, but cannot be sold for human consumption. In the vast majority of cases the existing MLS will become the new MCRS. Marine Scotland will inform the industry of any changes to MLS/MCRS.

Catches of fish below the MCRS must be landed and counted against quotas.

Fish below MCRS can be used for purposes other than for direct human consumption including bait, fish meal, fish oil, pet food, food additives, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. When the undersized fish cannot be sold, arrangements must be made for their disposal in line with requirements for Category 3 Animal By-Products Waste.

Costs associated with catching and landing small fish

 Additional costs occurring from the catching and landing of below-MCRS fish (storage, landing and transport) will be carried by the vessel responsible for the catch.


Marine Scotland will be working with Scottish ports, harbours and Local Authorities to identify local issues for the onshore industry and help build capacity to deal with incidences of small fish. For many of the smaller ports, solutions may involve the use of an onshore silo to collect and store small fish until it is more cost-effective to transport the fish to a processor or for disposal. The European Maritime Fisheries Fund (EMFF) is available to help financially with this transition.

Storing and sorting the below-MCRS fish on board

While at sea, vessels will need to store, label and record below-MCRS catch separately from catch above MCRS. Below-MCRS catch does not need to be stored separately by species. Marine Scotland has issued guidance on below-MCRS catches.

Avoiding small fish

 This is likely to depend upon your current method of fishing. Changes to fishing gear and improvements in selectivity are likely to prove useful e.g. the use of a bigger mesh size, use of a square mesh panel or larger cod-end. Seafish is updating its fishing methods handbook and producing an online gear database which can help fishermen identify options that may help reduce the catch of small fish. Marine Scotland is also working with the SFF to produce a similar appraisal of gear selectivity options. Some fishermen may also be able to avoid known seasonal congregations of small fish by moving to different fishing grounds during that period.

Catch composition rules

For species covered by the landing obligation, catches which breach catch composition thresholds must be landed and proportionate penalties will be levied against those vessels.

Highly selective gear

 Improvements in gear selectivity represents an important tool that can help fishermen avoid and reduce catches of undersized fish and unwanted species.  Work on selective gears is being taken forward through GITAG.

Quota management

A movement back to monthly quota allocations is unlikely. Vessels and markets must have flexibility to manage their quota over the course of a year. This flexibility enables vessels and POs to respond sensibly to changes in market demands and therefore maximise profit and value along the supply chain.


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