Europe’s Bass – A Species on the Edge of Collapse?

Recent years have seen bass in the headlines of mainstream media in the UK and the rest of Europe due to an alarming decline in the stocks of this species. This has led to Europe-wide measures being put in place to try to restore the breeding stock of this species and seen some unprecedented restrictions on anglers as well as some limits on commercial fishing. This article explores the impact which the changes in laws and legislation has had on angling and the other groups with an interesting in this species.

Bass – A Species Which is Increasing in Demand

Bass Fillets

Bass is now a highly rated table fish.

In 2013 a stock assessment by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) – a powerful independent organisation which advises European governments on all matters relating to marine science – found that bass stocks were at their lowest for twenty years (1). This was hardly surprising as bass have been increasing in demand as a table fish for several years, with celebrity chefs increasingly using bass in their recipes (2), leading to a huge rise in catches and consumption. Having been ignored by both consumers and commercial fishermen for decades, bass has become a hugely important commercial fish in the 2000s. Between 2005 and 2008 sales of bass more than trebled in the UK (3). It should also be pointed out that bass have become an increasingly fashionable species for recreational anglers to catch. The sales of lures and fishing tackle specifically designed to catch bass has increased, and fishing magazines are giving an increasing amount of pages over to bass fishing.

The rising demand for this species has had the effect of rising the price of bass and making it an increasingly attractive species for commercial fishermen to target, especially when the quotas of other highly commercial species such as cod and haddock had been reduced. A further bonus for fishermen switching to bass was that as a non-quota species there is little to no restrictions on how much bass could be caught (4). Inevitably this led to the significant decline in this species which made headlines after the ICES report in 2013. Indeed, ICES reported that levels of bass were at the risk of becoming so low that they would fall below the level where reproductive capacity became severely inhibited (5), in other words stocks were close to becoming so reduced that they might not be able to recover.

Action to Protect Bass

Wild bass

Bass numbers have declined alarmingly in recent years.

While all interested parties (governments, commercial fishermen, anglers, conservationists and so on) believed that it was essential to take action to halt the decline there was a huge amount of disagreement over exactly what should be done. One measure suggested by the European Fisheries Council was that recreational anglers should be limited to catching a single bass per day. This led to a furious reaction from angling groups such as B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society) which saw it as recreational anglers paying the price for commercial over-exploitation. Angling groups blamed commercial fishermen and saw limits on commercial catches as being the answer to restoring stocks. In the end no agreement could be reached and little was done throughout 2014, meaning the stocks of European bass continued to decline.

The UK government was one of the most vocal in demanding action the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union which carried out the day to day business of the EU) finally acted. Pair trawling for bass in the English Channel was banned for the breeding season in January to April 2015. Mostly carried out by French vessels, pair trawling is monumentally damaging involves dragging a vast net between two boats and specifically targeted bass as they gathered to spawn (6), effectively wiping out huge numbers of the breeding stock of bass. It is also linked with a very high dolphin and porpoise bycatch (7). This measure was (eventually) brought in with the agreement of the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland, but also saw another measure brought in alongside which limited anglers to retaining three bass per angler per day (8). This was due to their calculations that recreational angling for bass throughout Europe accounted for a quarter of the ‘impact’ on this species, and it was therefore justified and reasonable to restrict recreational anglers as well. Reaction within the recreational angling community across the UK was mixed, with some seeing it as a fair measure to ensure that bass stocks were restored, while others saw it as deeply unjust and setting a dangerous precedent for recreational angling.

Bass in 2016: Catch and Release Only for Anglers, Gill Netter’s Quota Increased

Talks between the EU member states continued throughout 2015, and towards the end of that year the new plan to restore bass stocks was announced which superseded the previous regulations. Instead, there would be further limits on commercial fishing for bass. Certain areas of the sea would be closed off to commercial fishing for this species and the fishery would be closed in February and March and in the second half of the year catch limits would apply to all vessels (9). However, anglers were shocked at the far-reaching nature of the measures which were brought in on recreational fishing. Anglers would be banned from retaining any bass at all from January to June 2016 and then limited to one bass a day from July to December of that year (10). Penalty failing to comply with the regulations was an unlimited fine and potential confiscation of fishing gear. In addition to this the minimum size for all recreational and commercially caught bass would also be raised to 42cm (11).

Bass Map

Restrictions were imposed on anglers fishing for bass in the red areas on the map above.

Angling groups were furious with the regulations with the Angling Trust running an article accusing the UK fisheries minister George Eustice of caving in to commercial pressure by making bass catch and release only for half of 2016 (12). Tensions were further heightened when it emerged that the highly damaging gill net fishery was being referred to as “low impact” by Mr. Eustice and had actually had its quota increased from 1000kg per month to 1300kg (12). Altogether the new measures would only reduce bass mortality by around 20%, when ICES figures had stated that mortality should have been cut by 80 to 90% in order to see a meaningful recovering of bass stocks (12). The overall feeling from the recreational fishing community was that their fishing – which had the least impact on bass stocks and generates the most money for the economy – had been subject to draconian restrictions. The commercial fishery, on the other hand, had been let off relatively lightly. Only trawling and seining for bass (which only accounts for around 15% of catches) had been subject to meaningful restrictions, while the highly damaging gill net fishery had actually had the amount of bass they were able to keep increased.

Anglers’ Protest

While the three bass per angler per day limit had received a mixed reception from anglers the total ban on retaining bass for six months followed by a restriction of one fish per angler for another six months was widely condemned by the sea angling community. Many saw the new legislation as discriminating against anglers in favour of the commercial fishing industry (13). In particular the increasing quota of the gill net fishery upset anglers who could not understand how this highly damaging form of commercial fishing was being allowed to expand and increase catches when anglers were being told that bass stocks were in such decline that recreational fishing had to be severely limited. Anglers found significant support for their cause. North Cornwall MP Scott Mann led a three hour backbench debate on this issue in the House of Commons, stating:

I lead this debate on sea bass conservation not just as an MP, but as an angler … I see recreational sea anglers and fishermen as part of a collective community. Both need healthy fish stocks. Both activities benefit the economy in different ways and in differing amounts and both have the same passion for catching fish. The current situation we find ourselves in is grossly unfair on anglers. Both fishermen and anglers want to see bass stocks preserved and grown, but one party shouldn’t have to suffer when they actually have very little impact on stocks (14).

Following this debate a demonstration was organised by the Cornish Federation of Sea Anglers in association with the Angling Trust and the Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society. The demonstration saw over two hundred anglers march to the constituency office of George Eustice in the Camborne in Cornwall. Unfortunately, Mr. Eustice had informed the organisers of the demonstration that he would not be at his office on that day. Instead he released a statement in which he said that he had discussed the issue with Angling Trust and pointed out that due to restrictions on commercial fishing anglers were the only group who had been able to fish for bass in two months of 2016, albeit on a catch and release basis only.

Anglers who were worried that the restrictions on bass would set a precedent on limiting the species anglers could catch were handed more evidence in a government-backed campaign. Looks Fishy is an ongoing-campaign to clamp down on the sale of illegally caught fish. It is backed by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO), the British Hospitality Association and the Angling Trust. However, an article on the NFFO website states that one of the answers to the selling of illegally caught fish could be “bag limits on recreational catches of all affected species.” While there is not yet any suggestion of this going forward many anglers who have seen bass fishing limited to catch and release and then retaining a single fish could be forgiven for fearing that similar restrictions could be placed on cod, mackerel, plaice or any other species which was at risk of being sold or traded illegally (15).

Brexit and the Possibility of a Total Bass Ban in 2017

Bass on Sale in Supermarket

Increasing demand for bass has pushed up prices and made bass a valuable commercial catch.

While the catch and release only restriction was still in force for anglers the people of Britain went to the polls in late June 2016 and voted by margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. This threw Britain into a period of political turmoil with the Prime Minister David Cameron announcing that he was standing down just hours after the result of the referendum was confirmed (16). While this will not have an immediate impact on UK anglers, commercial fishermen and fish stocks generally (the process of leaving the EU will take a minimum of two years) it will have significant changes in the medium to long term. All of the laws and legislation discussed above are agreed on a European Union wide basis as fishing is one of the areas where sovereignty is pooled and made on a Europe-wide basis. Once Britain has left the EU the country will be free to make its own decisions about bass stocks within British waters and how they should be treated and managed (assuming that the UK does not decide to maintain the status quo on fishing rights in Brexit negotiations). Exactly how this will translate into protection for bass stocks and limits and restrictions on bass fishing in UK waters will not be known for some time, but it does mean that Europe-wide legislation may not apply to the UK, and instead the democratically elected government of Britain could be responsible for managing and maintaining bass stocks in UK waters – a significant change from the way these issues are handled now.

Further important news emerged in 2016. ICES put forward the advice that, despite the limits, restrictions and legislation which had been brought in, bass stocks were still not recovering. They therefore recommended a total ban on all forms of recreational and commercial fishing for bass in 2017 (17), pointing out that even if bass fishing is completely stopped in 2017 stocks will still be critically low in 2018. Representatives of the commercial fishing industry stated that they were not convinced that the information ICES was a acting on was up to date, and Malcolm Gilbert of the Cornish Federation of Sea Anglers said that if a total ban was brought in then sea anglers would have to accept it, but it must also apply to commercial fishermen as well (18).

Potential Solutions

European Commission

Brexit means that future legislation set by the European Commission may not apply to the United Kingdom, which may set its own rules to protect bass stocks.

There is no doubt that Europe’s bass stocks are in big trouble and major change is needed in order to bring about recovery. The consensus within the recreational angling community is that anglers have been forced to endure draconian restrictions on their fishing due to the unsustainable fishing from commercial fishing industry. Commercial fishermen’s organisations continue to argue that they are receptive to change but are unhappy with, and resistant to, many of the measures which have been put forward to rebuild bass stocks (18).

B.A.S.S. and the Angling Trust put out a joint statement which stated that if a moratorium on bass fishing is put in place for 2017 it must be applied to all forms of commercial fishing for bass, with no exemptions for “low impact” gill netting at all. They also suggested that bass could become a recreational/sustainable hook and line commercial species only (19), although such as move would be fiercely resisted by the vast majority of the commercial fishing industry. Writing in a guest post on this website Chris Williams of the New Economics Foundation put forward ideas to restore bass stocks. These included seasonal and spatial closures, moving trawlers on from areas once it is clear bass are being caught, restrictions on netting for bass and raising the awareness of consumers that wild caught bass is not a sustainable fish to eat (20). Read the full article by Chris Williams on this website by clicking here. There has also been a move from the Marine Stewardship Council (MCS) to begin a boycott of wild caught bass. The MCS stated that farmed bass was abundant and other species such as mackerel or hake could be used as alternatives to take the pressure off bass stocks (21).

Measures for 2017 – No Total Ban

In December 2016 the European Union’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council announced its measures for bass fishing in 2017. The idea of making bass a species which can only be caught by commercial fishermen using hooks and line has largely been taken up, with the Agriculture and Fisheries Council stating that there will be “no fishing for sea bass by commercial vessels targeting sea bass, except for long lines [and] pole and lines (22).” These vessels will have a maximum catch limit of ten tons per year, and will have to observe a period when fishing for bass is banned during February and March 2017, as this is the main spawning time for bass. Fixed gill nets cannot target bass but can retain 250kg to cover “unavoidable bycatch” while demersal trawlers and seiners can retain up to 400kg to cover unavoidable bycatch (22). The Council also stated that recreational anglers “are asked to practise a catch and release fishery in the first half of the year and to limit their catches to one fish per day in the second half of 2017 (22).” In other words the same restrictions which anglers faced in 2016 applied in 2017.

The Council stated that these measures were designed to protect sea bass by stopping commercial vessels from specifically targeting this species and only allowing them to keep what they inadvertently catch. The Council said that these measures were designed to allow artisanal hook and line fishermen (who may have no other species to catch) to allow to continue to catch bass, while other sectors of the commercial fishing industry can no longer target bass. All types of commercial fishing must observe the two month ban and recreational anglers will have the same restrictions that they had in 2016. The Council added that the 1.3 million recreational anglers in France and the 800,000 in the UK “added a lot of value” and that “it is … vital to rebuild sea bass for the benefit of both commercial fishermen and recreational anglers (22).”

The plans for a compete bass ban in 2017 have clearly not transpired, with the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council clearly attempting to keep all parties happy while simultaneously trying to rebuild the bass stocks. Commercial fishermen had vociferously argued against banning gill nets from targeting bass (22), and appeared relatively happy with the large bycatch allowances they had been granted for both gill nets and trawlers, arguing that a total ban on keeping bass would only lead to high levels of discarded bycatch (23). One of the rumours that recreational anglers would be limited to catching ten bass a month has not transpired with a continuation of the catch-and-release for the first half of the year and retaining a single bass per day for the rest of 2017. This will be disappointing for the charter boat sector, which has seen revenues badly hit by the restrictions on retaining bass (25).

There was controversy over the way in which the English and Welsh governments interpreted the new bycatch regulations on commercial fishing for bass. The limits of 250kg of bass for demersal trawlers and 400kg for seiners are strictly for genuine unavoidable bycatch only, but the fisheries ministers in both London and Cardiff appeared to be interpreting this as a monthly catch allowance when they publically referred to the figures as a ‘provision’ for bass (26). The governments of the two nations eventually released a statement clarifying that the allowances were for bycatch only and commercial demersal trawlers and seiners could not target specifically target bass (27).

The Future

Clearly the European Union is taking the issue of declining bass numbers seriously and attempting to take action to rebuild stocks. However, the pressure from commercial fishermen to continue to catch this species in high numbers, along with anglers who do not see why they should be stopped from taking the small number of fish they catch, means that the EU has a near-impossible balancing act to perform. With the rumoured ban on all commercial and recreational fishing for bass now not happening in 2017 it appears that the course of action is lighter restrictions on both types of fishing, along with bans on commercial fishing during the two peak months of the spawning season. It will take time before we will know if these measures are enough to restore bass stocks.

This article will be updated with more information as 2017 progresses.

References

  1. Sea Bass Stocks Fall to Their Lowest in 20 Years – The Guardian, 18/9/2013.
  2. Europe is Wiping Out its Seabass Population, Thanks in Part to Trendy Chefs – Quartz, 19/9/2013.
  3. Sea Bass: The Superstar of the Seas – The Independent, 18/3/2008.
  4. Our scientific programme on bass and other fish: a personal perspective by Michel Kaise – Bangor University Fisheries and Conservation Group.
  5. Protecting Sea Bass – European Commission.
  6. EU ban on bass fishing to protect species from collapse – Western Morning News, 19/1/2015
  7. Dead Dolphins Delivered to French Government – Greenpeace, 17/5/2005.
  8. The Most Significant Change in Sea Angling History – fishingtails.co.uk, 3/9/2015
  9. New commercial and recreational fishing restrictions for Bass in 2016 – gov.uk, 30/12/2015.
  10. Bass Fishing: Catch limits, closures and minimum size – gov.uk, 3/2/2016.
  11. EU raises minimum size of northern sea bass for better protection of the stocks – European Commission, 2/7/2015
  12. Fishing Minister Accused of ‘Shameful Conservation Con Trick’ Over Bass Stocks – Angling Trust, 17/12/2015.
  13. Anglers ‘Disgusted’ by New EU Sea Bass Laws – Rye and Battle Observer, 7/1/2016
  14. Recreational Sea Bass Fishing – publications.parliament.uk, 11/2/2016
  15. Tackling the Threat Posed by Unlicenced Fishing – NFFO, 13/04/2016
  16. Brexit: David Cameron to Quit After UK Votes to Leave the EU – BBC News, 24/6/2016.
  17. Sea Bass Shortage Could Bring Complete Fishing Ban in 2017 – The Daily Telegraph, 1/7/2016
  18. Bass Conservation Measures NFFO Position Paper June 2015 – 4/6/2016
  19. Angling Trust And BASS Statement On ICES Advice On Bass For 2017 – Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society
  20. Brexit Won’t Bring Back the Bass – Williams, C. britishseafishing.co.uk
  21. Pledge to Boycott Sales of Seabass Caught in the Wild is Launched – Fish2Fork.com, 13/10/2016.
  22. Sea Bass Q&A, available at www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/…/qa-sea-bass-dec-2016_pdf/
  23. Bass: Ban on Gill Net Fisheries “Misguided and Harmful” – NFFO, 29/11/2016
  24. December Council Outcomes – NFFO, 15/12/2016
  25. English and Welsh Governments Told to Stop Misrepresenting New Measures to Protect Seabass – The Angling Trust, 13/1/17.
  26. Bass Rules Clarified by Westminster and Cardiff, The Angling Trust, 1/7/17.
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