In September 2012 the Daily Telegraph ran a story with the headline ‘Just 100 Cod Left in the North Sea‘. It was an incredible statistic and one that caused a great deal of debate – not only in the commercial fishing and angling communities but across mainstream media and social media such as Twitter. Commercial fishermen were furious, accusing the Daily Telegraph of making up the statistic and causing unnecessary fear and concern amongst the general public.
So what was the Daily Telegraph’s reasoning behind the article? Further reading of the article itself reveals that there were 276,000 tons of cod aged three or older in the North Sea in 1971, and only 65,300 tons today, meaning stocks are clearly reduced. However, the article itself states that this still equates to 191,000,000 one-year old cod and around 18,000,000 three year old cod. With these numbers quoted in the article itself why on earth had the Daily Telegraph ran the sensationalist, inflammatory and simply wrong headline ‘Just 100 Cod Left in the North Sea‘?
The Daily Telegraph’s sub-heading provided some answers. It read: ‘Overfishing has left just 100 adult cod in the North Sea’ [emphasis added]. The newspaper had taken the maximum twenty-five lifespan of a cod and chosen the mid-point of life as the age at which cod become adult. By this completely arbitrary definition it could be possible that there were only one hundred ‘adult’ cod in the North Sea. However, cod can spawn when they are three to four years old and are therefore adult at this age, and it is actually rare for a North Sea cod to live for more than eleven years. By the Daily Telegraph’s bizarre logic a cod which was ten years old, weighed over 20lb and had spawned multiple times would not be classed as adult!
The Sunday Times ran a similar story at the same time stating that there were only one-hundred adult cod left in the North Sea (picture above). Although they did use the word ‘adult’ in their headline they still used the same mid-point of life criteria to distinguish an adult cod from an immature one.
A few days later both the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times began to backtrack on the claims of the article. Many responses to the article in other newspapers and websites heavily criticised both papers for either misunderstanding the issues, or deliberately twisting the facts to create their story. The government agency Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), who had supplied the information which was used for the article, stated that journalists had “misunderstood the data.” Both papers eventually bowed to the pressure. Although at the time of writing the Daily Telegraph still has the article online (it can be viewed here) it now has an clarification section at the end stating that there are around 21,000,000 mature cod in the North Sea and a link to this clarification page on the government’s Defra website. The Sunday Times also has a short paragraph at the start of their article stating that “the headline of this article over-simplifies a complex issue.” Additionally the Sunday Times printed a statement in their Corrections and Clarifications section a week later correcting some of the misleading claims and also printed a letter from Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations which criticised the original article.
While we can all laugh at how badly wrong certain newspapers got this situation there are serious consequences. The credibility of newspaper (and the media generally) to report on fishing related issues is hugely reduced. The Sunday Times have ran a “Sea Rescue” campaign which has brought a great deal of attention to the damaging and destructive practices of commercial fishing, while promoting environmentally sustainable and small-scale fishermen. However, articles as bad as the “100 Cod” one give critics ammunition to simply dismiss stories critical of the commercial fishing industry – how can they possibly argue about the future of the seas and oceans when their knowledge is so limited they run stories saying that there are only one one hundred cod in the North Sea? Nobody is helped by ridiculous claims, misrepresented scientific claims and shoddy journalism peddled by British newspapers who really should know better.