New EU Measures Bring Hope to Restoring Bass Stocks

The second guest post by Chris Williams of the NEF (New Economics Foundation) looking at the progress which has been made over European bass stocks – and what more needs to be done.

Anyone following the fate of sea bass in the EU will have been filled with hope that the future of this iconic species can be turned around by the decisions made at European level. The final part of the package of EU measures was announced on July 2nd, including a measure to increase the minimum size at which bass can be caught and taken ashore from 36cm to 42 cm, effective from September 1st 2015. This regulation ensures that more seabass will survive to maturity, allowing more fish to reproduce therefore rebuilding depleted stocks.

This is the first time this fisheries management approach, has been used for commercial and recreational fishers in the EU. In conjunction with the pelagic trawl ban on spawning aggregations, monthly catch limits, the daily three bass catch limit for recreational anglers, and a closed area around Ireland, the politics has triumphed and an agreement has been reached in line with the measures that NEF put forward in our 7 steps to bass stock recovery.

Political negotiation has succeeded in bringing about agreement at a policy level – but we now need to make sure that those tasked with the managing and enforcing these new regulations can make them a reality. An EU-wide bass management plan is essential and the government needs to make the necessary resources available to ensure everyone, including future generations of fishers and anglers, can reap the benefits once the stocks are rebuilt.

The increased minimum size regulation in combination with the catch limits is an essential fisheries management tool to enable bass stocks to be restored to a condition where it could be fished at its Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY). This is a legal requirement for all stocks by 2020, but is especially pertinent to bass, as if the regulators are adequately resourced this could well become a reality and cause for hope.

However, these changes will affect inshore fishers in a substantial way, and the impacts will be felt widely from Wales and around the southern coast to Suffolk – where the vast majority of UK small scale fishers operate. Fishers will have to adapt to the minimum size regulations, which mean a large percentage of their catch (36cm bass) will be illegal to land. While this poses a significant challenge, if these measures aren’t enforced, the bass fishery will not survive for large, small or recreational fishers.

Following scientific advice will mean an effective end to the bass fishery

ICES advice came out on June 30th. This eagerly awaited document stated that when following the MSY approach – the total bass landings for commercial and recreational fishers in the northern range (the area of the southern North Sea, Channel and Irish Sea / Bristol Channel) should total no more than 541 tonnes for 2016. (Note that in 2014 ICES advice for the same areas was 1155 tonnes and that actual commercial landings alone were over double that amount.)

The catch limits decided at EU level are cumulatively still above scientific advice and are the result of political negotiation and lobbying by fishers and businesses rather than measures solely designed to protect and restore bass at stock level.

Since 2002, ICES have advised that we should not increase catch levels in order to allow bass stocks to recover – but over the past three years, their advice to reduce catches has been ignored. In fact ICES notes the stock is likely to decrease even further in the short term due to low levels of recruitment (low numbers of young fish) within bass stocks. Even if new restrictions pose challenges to fishers in the short term, the crisis is far from over as limits now need to be set so low that the very real prospects of a ‘by catch only fishery’ or total closure for bass fishing still exists.

Many small scale fishermen moved to bass as a result of the ongoing reductions in quota for other main commercial species. Their cumulative fishing effort, added to the larger offshore trawl fishery, provided a lifeline for these boats, but the consequences have been catastrophic for the stock. However, without addressing issues of quota, the situation for inshore fishermen looks even bleaker.

To restore bass stocks and ensure they are fished sustainably in the future, it is essential that a management plan for bass is created urgently, as ICES has been advising and conservationists are calling for.

While this work continues, it’s crucial that any access to the bass fishery should follow the criteria laid out in Article 17, to ensure that bass are fished in a way that provides the greatest benefits to society as a whole. Using this approach can ensure that a large number of small scale fishermen can maintain their livelihoods, rather than others making a profits at the expense of the long term survival of the stock. As we have made clear through the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, allocating quota and access to all stocks should deliver the highest social value with the lowest environmental impact. Article 17 enshrines that principle in law.

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