Some Progress – But Seabass are Still on the Brink

The first 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.

Any seabass lover must have been pleased to see the European Parliament vote in favour of a resolution to make bass fishing sustainable. This has been followed with the announcement of a 3 fish per angler / per day bag limit. If fines for non-compliance are significant, this bag limit could help tackle the pervasive illegal fishing and form part of a package of measures to reduce mortality. Following the emergency measures announced in January, which closed mid-water trawl fishing on spawning bass aggregations, we need to push the European Commission further to ensure that this crisis is not only averted, but turned around urgently.

…because there are ongoing problems that also need to be tackled

As waters warm, the bass return eastwards along the Channel where they are being targeted as they continue to spawn. Since the emergency measures introduced in January only apply to one type of fishing boat, the spawning bass are continuing to be caught by commercial and recreational fishers. If left to spawn successfully, they populate the inshore bass nursery areas, where after 3-4 years most of the inshore and recreational value is accrued as these bass grow.

But, bass landings for 2015 show UK vessels landing 80 tonnes of bass in January alone! So the onslaught has not stopped and the dire situation that justified the use of emergency measures is far from over.

The targeted mid-Channel fishing for bass must be urgently regulated (shorter / fewer nets that are more selective) and seasonally / spatially restricted. Otherwise, any gains made as a result of the emergency measures will be undone as other fishing vessels can target the bass over the course of their migration (or new entrants start fishing for them). This has been acknowledged but not yet addressed in a meaningful way, since UK and French vessels are still fishing the bass stocks harder than they can sustain.

Member States must agree further measures to reduce bass mortality in 2015 and beyond.

Measures for this year (and for the multi-annual plan that will be developed going forward) must include a considerable reduction in the mortality fishing imposes on bass populations. This should be step-by-step in line with the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, but if it is too slow the decline will continue and recovery delayed. Scientists have said that the mortality needs to be reduced by 60% compared to current levels (Cefas, 2015), which translates to an 80% reduction in landings (according to ICES, 2014). Without further measures to reduce catches of bass, any recovery at all might be at risk,

Monthly catch limits need to be instated for all EU fleets targeting bass

Measures that apply to all fishing vessels need to be brought in through in-year amendment to the European regulation setting fishing opportunities for 2015. Monthly catch limits should apply to all vessels targeting bass, so that the impact of the reduction in catches needed to make bass populations safe and productive is shared by the fleet segments that rely on them (for more details on suggested catch limits, see section 3 of NEF’s report)

There is no point in delaying these decisions, as the impact of further delay will move bass further away from being a sustainable fishery.

Size matters: Minimum and maximum sizes

The EU should also make amendments to the EU Technical Conservation Regulation (EU 850/98) to increase the minimum size at which bass can be landed (their ‘minimum landing size’, or MLS).

Why does the MLS need to be increased? Because ‘… large animals contribute much more to the next generation. They produce disproportionately more offspring than small fishes….For example, an 80cm European sea bass produces 14 times more young than when it was 40cm (Fig 1).’ This is why MLS is one of the most fundamental changes we need to see with regard to bass management and conservation.

Figure 1: Bass size and production of offspring (Image credit: PISCO, 2011) [i]

MCRS needs to be set on biological grounds – the current MLS of 36cm is below the size at which female bass reach sexual maturity (40-45cm). This means females are being removed from the breeding population before they’ve had a chance to contribute to it. For this reason, NEF are advocating for an increase to a minimum landing size of 42cm, for both recreational and commercial sectors, (and a mesh size increase to 110mm+ for fixed gears), to help ensure that fish should be able to breed at least once, and to protect more of these old big females that produce the most young. These minimum landing sizes and mesh sizes should be reviewed annually and increased further in stages.

Due to the new targeted fishery in the mid-Channel which is impacting much larger fish than the traditional fishing of smaller bass in the inshore area, maximum landing sizes should also be introduced. The use of maximum mesh size could help limit catches of bigger fish, since the bigger fish ‘bounce’ off the mesh instead of becoming entangled and caught. This should follow scientific advice but a maximum of 65-70cm might be a good starting point.

No time for delays and negotiating – the emergency isn’t over…

The European Commission has decided that technical measures should be put to the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) at their plenary in July so they can advise the Commission on management measures such as those discussed above. However, this will miss the summer and early autumn fishing peaks when most fleets are targeting the bass – i.e. the very peaks the measures are designed to cut. Although the reformed Common Fisheries Policy allows in some cases for gradual phasing in of measures, in the case of bass we don’t have that luxury. There is no time for phasing in reduced landings! Decisions need to be taken now and they need to be radical…

NEF are calling on the European Commission to act now – don’t defer decisions on management to STECF, and don’t wait until the end of the summer to take a decision. Introduce technical measures including closure of the major bass spawning areas to all commercial vessels that target bass during the spring months. A crucial subsequent step for the EU is to ensure the pelagic trawl ban becomes permanent for the December – April period of every year.

 NEF also call on the Council of Ministers in Brussels to agree further measures – such as those discussed above – at their meeting on 20th April. France can no longer block the process, as emergency measures have been declared. Now we have a second chance and we are looking to the Council of Ministers to ensure this crisis is turned around in a meaningful way. There has already been a lot of support for the recent emergency measures to protect bass. Public support for continued (and improved) management measures will help make a big difference in how the discussion at this meeting goes. If Ministers know that their constituents are in favour of the much needed stronger measures, they are likely to fight harder for them.

Follow scientific advice – the legal and moral duty.

Maybe bass should be off the agenda for December Council meetings when the rest of European fishing opportunities are decided, to avoid horse trading altogether as this is a stock on the brink. Current emergency measures will expire in a matter of months, so we don’t have long to get a meaningful plan in place. Compared to the ICES advice for 2015, measures so far fall well short in both scale and timing.

There will be more ICES advice in June 2015: they previously recommended an 80% cut which has not been heeded – but what will that mean for this year’s advice? Advice for a 90% cut? A 99% cut? A total moratorium on bass fishing throughout the EU? This is not time for compromise… It’s time to agree and adopt measures now that will bring about the necessary change.

You can’t negotiate with nature.

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[i] http://www.piscoweb.org/files/file/science_of_marine_reserves/SMR_EU-HR.pdf PISCO ‘Science of Marine Reserves’ accessed December 2014. Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans. 2011. The Science of Marine Reserves (2nd Edition, Europe). www.piscoweb.org. 22 pages.

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