Only a third of the UK’s key fish populations are in a healthy state, and catches of key species such as cod should be reduced this year as the UK negotiates fishing rights with the EU, according to the first post-Brexit assessment of the UK’s fisheries.
Of the top 10 stocks on which the UK’s fishing industry relies, only three – mackerel in the north-east Atlantic, haddock in the North Sea, and langoustines in the west of Scotland – are in a healthy state and not overfished, according to an audit of 104 stocks by the charity Oceana.
Catches of cod in the North Sea should be reduced substantially, by about 13 to 16%, the group said, and no cod at all should be fished in the Celtic Sea, if stocks are to be saved from severe depletion.
Herring, whiting and blue whiting are also showing signs of strain and should be given more chance to recover, according to the report. Of shellfish, scallops in the eastern English channel and crab in the southern North Sea were also found to be overfished.
Melissa Moore, head of UK policy at Oceana, told the Guardian that reductions in catches now would yield benefits in the future. “You end up with more fish, so you can reap the benefits in three to five years,” she said. “That’s what has been done with haddock, through following the science.”
She called for ministers, who have begun fishing negotiations with the EU that are likely to last weeks, to set quota limits that will lead to sustainable populations of fish in British waters for years to come. “There is an opportunity and a responsibility for the UK to lead the way in achieving sustainable fisheries. Only if the government sets fishing opportunities at sustainable levels will UK fish stocks recover and the fishing industry and coastal communities thrive.”
When the fisheries bill was debated last year, the government resisted calls for stronger legal protections for fish populations. Ministers said the UK would pursue sustainable yields in line with scientific advice, but the final wording of the legislation was regarded as weak by campaigners, who were also concerned at the lack of restrictions on harmful practices such as bottom trawling and fishing in marine protected areas.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “As an independent coastal state, we will manage our fisheries sustainably in a way that protects our precious marine and coastal environment, and enables our seafood sector and coastal communities to thrive. The government is committed to sustainable fishing, and our Fisheries Act enshrined that commitment in law with the introduction of our fisheries management plans, which are legally binding plans for achieving sustainable fish stocks.”
The UK’s fishers, many of whom are facing hardship or even bankruptcy as the result of Brexit red tape making it difficult for them to export their catch, are likely to be concerned by calls to reduce their catch this year.
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, dismissed the Oceana audit findings and said quota advice should be based on international research on stocks, and should also take into account the needs of communities dependent on fishing fleets.
“This is the usual alarmist doomsaying that the environmental NGOs put out every year when the quota negotiations are on,” he told the Guardian. “Fisheries managers in setting total allowable catches and quotas have to take in a range of factors including the wellbeing of fishing communities in the short and long term, discard reduction as well as rebuilding the biomass on individual stocks where necessary. A one-dimensional focus based on massaged stats will not cut it with the grown-ups.”
He said data from the International Council of Exploration of the Seas suggested that the UK’s fishing stocks were harvested at sustainable levels, with a few exceptions such as cod. Cod was moving northward at 12km a year because of climate change, he said, which helped to explain why it was problematic.
Greenpeace added to Oceana’s call for restrictions on fishing, urging the government to focus on supertrawlers. During last year’s lockdowns, foreign supertrawler activity increased in key areas even while small fishing boats were confined to port. Campaigners believe there is strong public support for restricting them, and ending harmful practices such as bottom trawling, which rakes the seabed and disturbs vast swathes of marine life.
Chris Thorne, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “This audit provides yet more damning evidence that setting catch limits in line with scientific advice is an absolute must, if fish populations are going to stand any chance of recovering. The government should also prioritise banning supertrawlers and bottom trawlers – the most destructive of fishing vessels, many of which target stocks that are overfished – from fishing in the UK’s marine protected areas.”
He pressed ministers to set an example: “Since leaving the EU the government has a unique opportunity to bring in a ban, which will give fish space to recover. But until it does, our most important marine ecosystems will go on being plundered, fish stocks will continue to fall, and claims of being a ‘world leader’ in ocean protection will continue to be meaningless.”