Sea bass stocks lowest for 20 years say conservationists
Stocks of European sea bass have crashed to their lowest levels for 20 years, a conference will hear today.
As a result, scientists are calling for catches of bass to be cut by more than a third next year.
According to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the numbers of sea bass - a perennial staple of restaurant menus and a favourite quarry for sea anglers - have declined to the lowest point recorded for two decades.
Delegates at a conference in Weymouth today, organised by the UK-based ocean conservation charity Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE), will hear scientists calling for catches of wild sea bass in European waters to be cut by more than a third next year, based on the findings.
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Lisa Readdy from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Science (Cefas), who took part in the ICES assessment, will tell the conference: “This year’s assessment of the bass stocks shows a declining population, with a drop of more than 20 per cent when compared with previous years.”
Scientists are recommending a 36 per cent cut in catches throughout the English Channel, Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and southern North Sea.
This would mean that bass landings next year in the UK, Channel Islands, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and France should total no more than 2,707 tonnes – a significant reduction from the 4,060 tonnes of the fish landed last year.
However, it is unclear how the proposed reductions can be achieved since bass is a stock that has, until now, been managed nationally and by EU-agreed technical measures - for example, minimum landing size - rather than through international quota management.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has put forward a package of technical measures for discussion in Brussels, designed to address the problem in the short term, with other member states also contributing their own recommendations to apply in 2014.
In the longer term, a strategic management plan is expected to be developed at EU level, along the lines advocated by the UK Government.
Potential measures could include the imposition of larger net mesh sizes, enabling more fish to escape; an increase in minimum landing sizes; the closure of certain areas during the spring months to protect spawning potential, with caps on allowable monthly catch per vessel for the rest of the year, as an EU standard to protect all age classes of bass; or the imposition of international quotas on bass for the first time.
Currently, French trawlers typically fish in pairs for bass in the English Channel, but British trawlers are forbidden from pair trawling within 12 nautical miles of the UK coast in the South West, owing to conservationists’ concerns about by-catch of porpoises and dolphins.
The imposition of larger mesh sizes and minimum landing sizes has long been a campaigning aim of recreational sea angling groups, but previous attempts to increase mesh sizes in the UK have proved difficult to implement in mixed fisheries.
Charles Clover, chairman of BLUE, which organised today’s national conference in Weymouth on marine protected areas with Dorset Coastal Forum, said: “The apparent crash in the sea bass population highlighted by the latest ICES assessment should be of significant concern to both commercial and recreational fishermen, especially as nothing very much appears to be being done about it yet at a government level.”
“We believe that the need to protect older fish until they can spawn reopens the debate about minimum landing sizes that took place in the last decade. This time, both commercial and recreational fishermen need to combine their significant lobbying power to ensure we protect this living resource effectively.
“We also hope that the kind of scientific research currently being carried out alongside academic and commercial partners in Lyme Bay, as part of BLUE’s project to establish a marine protected area there with the active participation of local fishermen, can play a part in explaining what is currently happening to sea bass stocks.”
BLUE’s Weymouth conference on the management of marine protected areas comes at a critical time in the ocean conservation debate, as the UK Government prepares to announce how many of the 127 marine conservation zones originally proposed around the English coast it intends to proceed with.