North Sea fish stocks still far from recovery

Full recovery of cod stocks in the North Sea will take 10-20 years, according to Professor Colin Bannister. Credit: Seafish Full recovery of cod stocks in the North Sea will take 10-20 years, according to Professor Colin Bannister. Credit: Seafish

The ‘top heavy’ European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has been largely ineffectual for most of its life, according to Barrie Deas, CEO of the UK National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.

Top down micromanagement has been too remote and stakeholders need to be more involved in decision making. Managers, scientists and stake holders ‘can make great strides’ by working together, he said.

Barrie Deas, a former Buckland Professor, was speaking at the 2nd Buckland Colloquium held at Fishmongers’ Hall at the beginning of June where securing the supply of food from marine fisheries was being addressed.

The so-called gadoid outburst after the collapse of the North Sea herring fishery in the mid 1970s had led to the over expansion of the UK fishing fleet with the government subsidising the building of new fishing vessels. This had led to the severe depletion of cod and other whitefish stocks.

In fact, UK landings of the most sought after traditional species are now at their lowest level since the Second World War. As a result, the country is importing more than 90% of the cod it needs from countries such as Iceland and Norway.

While not saying the CFP was the answer to failing fish stocks, Professor Colin Bannister, a current Buckland Professor and former government advisor on species management, told delegates that management measures imposed by the European Commission were having a positive effect.

“Fishing mortality is moving very much in the right direction and is now 50% less than in 2001 when the cod fishery went into crisis,” he said. “The spawning rate is moving in the right direction too, albeit there is still a long way to go.”

In fact, full recovery of cod stocks in the North Sea will take 10-20 years, he added.

Climate change
Stock recovery is also being held back by the effects of climate change. The North Sea has been warming up – the temperature has risen by 1-2 deg C during the past 100 years – so cod and other similar whitefish species are moving north to colder waters.

Dr John Pinnegar, a specialist on ecosystem studies and the impact of climate change from the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Lowestoft, told delegates there was a strong relationship between water temperature and stock recruitment. Warmer water disrupts the feed for juveniles of some species, he said, and cod had been badly affected.

The unforeseen effects of climate change, while still coping from the overfishing which took place, means it is unlikely that EU, particularly British, fishermen will be able to return to the glory days of the 1970s when whitefish supplies were plentiful, for some considerable time, if ever.

To get the best out of ‘the existing biological possibilities’, Colin Bannister’s recommendation for future fishing in the North Sea is to keep the harvest rate low and use as large a net mesh size as mixed fishing will allow.

However, he added that a balance must be struck between fishermen’s livelihoods and conservation. “Stringent measures on cod and other recovery stocks impose very significant economic and social effects on fishing communities. Scientists are very conscious of this.”

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