A BATTLE in the fish fight has been won, but the war isn’t over – that is the verdict from local fishermen and celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

The TV chef who mounted “Hugh’s Fish Fight” has reacted with cautious optimism to developments at the European Council in Luxembourg.

It gave a commitment to ban the “discard” of millions of tonnes of edible fish, caught over quota levels.

When the issue was highlighted, the public was outraged at the waste and a lobbying campaign was mounted, with a petition signed by more than 700,000 people.

But West Dorset fishermen’s representative Chris Wason said that it was still not clear how a new system would work.

“The changes are not going to affect us for a good few years yet,” said Lyme Regis-based Mr Wason, who is vice-chairman of the South Western Inshore Fisheries Association.

“But if they are stopping discards, what is going to happen when we get to quota?

“It is impossible to catch only a particular species and it hasn’t been made clear what happens to the fish that are over our quota.

“Banning discards is a good thing and the fish need protecting, but how will it work?”

Fisheries ministers met to discuss moves to reform the policy, which governs all European fishing fleets, and agreed there should be an end to discards but no firm date was set for bringing in the ban.

Provisional dates published by the EU council would see discards banned for fisheries such as mackerel and herring by January 1 2014.

And a ban on discards in whitefish fisheries such as cod, haddock, plaice and sole would come in on a phased basis starting 12 months later and fully in place by January 1, 2018, under the proposals.

Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “It’s right to describe the commitment by EU ministers to a discards ban as a “massive breakthrough”, and our Fish Fighters should be delighted that our message has been not only heard, but acted on. We know that changing EU law will be a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s still much more to do in the coming months to make sure the ministers deliver on these promises.

“We need to change provisional dates into a completely committed timetable. We need to persuade MEPs to improve on, and then ratify the decisions taken by the ministers. Only then can we ensure that we will have sustainable fish stocks, a viable fishing industry and a healthy marine environment for generations to come.”

Under existing EU rules, fishermen have quotas for certain fish, but can carry on fishing once the limits are reached as long as they do not bring any more of that species to shore.

As a result, tonnes of edible fish, which exceed the quota, are thrown back to sea as discards, accounting for up to 90 per cent of the total catch in some fisheries.