Brexit Won’t Bring Back the Bass

This guest post by Chris Williams of the NEF (New Economics Foundation) looking at the trouble Europe’s bass stocks are in, and what needs to be done to turn things around.

Bass stocks are collapsing. This has been clear for years and our recommendations for how to turn the fishery around and how to allocate access to any remaining bass fishery using environmental, social and economic criteria have now been dealt a devastating blow. Scientific advice now is for a total moratorium on fishing for bass. ‘’ICES advises that when the precautionary approach is applied, there should be zero catch (commercial and recreational) in 2017.’’ Total EU landings were just over 2,000 tonnes in 2014 and have been declining as the stock shrinks and EU measures limit catches.

Sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) peaked in 2010 and has been declining since and is now below Blim (a key indicator of stock collapse)  in the North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel, Bristol Channel, and Celtic Sea). Source: ICES advice June 2016.

On 19 December 2014 the UK made a formal request to the European Commission to take emergency measures to protect sea bass stocks. Measures were put in in place but they were not strong enough and they have not been properly enforced by any Member State including the UK, where the organisations with a duty to do so are hampered by cuts as a result of misguided UK austerity policies.

Emergency measures and declining stock have brought down landings of bass – but any positives will take years to materialise. Source: ICES advice June 2016.

Throughout the build-up to the annual December meeting of fisheries ministers, MEPs made some great points about the urgent need for long term management; however some politicians around the UK coast made totally misguided arguments about the EU ‘banning seabass fishing in our waters…with no warning’. The emergency measures were EU-wide and the warning was five years of scientific advice to reduce fishing mortality or face stock collapse. Not paying attention and then saying it’s a surprise is no excuse. ‘We want our fish back’,  blaming ‘the French’ and how great Brexit would be for bass are all deeply flawed lines of argument, showing the total lack of understanding of the issues – what can one coastal MP do about a migratory, trans-boundary stock anyway? Bass migrate. They move between inshore and offshore waters. They spawn in areas that, even if we reinstated our 200nM limit, would still be fished by other nations in the Channel, Celtic Sea and North Sea because where there is less than 200nM available (it’s the median line which international maritime law applies to if the area is less than 200nM).  I.e. French, Irish, Dutch, Belgian and Spanish boats could still target these and other stocks…and rightfully so. They are a shared resource, not ‘our’ fish. The table below shows the 2015 breakdown.

However, landings are poorly recorded, illegal (IUU) sales of bass both from commercial vessels and from unlicensed commercial fishermen are rife, and there are legal loopholes for sales of bass below 30kg.  Enforcement too is a major issue for bass and indeed many other species.  The ill-judged, late-night decision to have different rules for drift gill netting and fixed gill netting has been a dream come true for fishermen cynically trying to evade the restrictions.

For the next two years at least, the CFP still applies. How can the UK use its remaining time in the EU to shape the long-term management of bass, and what is needed to actually turn the fate of this iconic species around?

The EU needs to be tough on by-catch.   Despite the collapsed stock, English and French trawlers are asking (via the Advisory Councils) for an increase of bycatch allowance from 1% to 5%.  This would be an incredibly regressive move, providing an economic incentive for them to continue catching large quantities of bass and giving them a green light to complete the destruction of the stock.  Instead, the by-catch allowance needs to removed completely and these vessels should be required to fish more selectively and take active steps to avoid bass aggregations, for example by communicating with other boats in the area if bass are found.

CFP Article 17 requires incentives to be given for selective gear and sustainable fishing.  The request for an increased by-catch allowance does to exact opposite; it rewards unselective fishing at the expense of small scale sustainable fishermen.

The Dutch fly shooters need to be restricted too.  They are hoovering up non-quota species such as gurnard, squid and mullet as well as a substantial by-catch of bass, which are often under size and therefore dumped. An increase in bycatch allowance to 5% for them would be immense and mean a further negative impact on the bass stock for absolutely no gain, just because these vessels can’t select what they fish for and don’t avoid areas where they know bass aggregate.

Time to be tough

  • Seasonal and spatial closures – The EU needs to close pair the bass trawl fishery permanently. The UK should use its remaining voice to push for this.
  • EU-wide, we need to shut areas to mobile trawl gear once it’s clear bass are being caught. This approach (the ‘’moving on’’ approach) has been used successfully to help recover cod stocks.
  • Fixed and drift netting for bass should also be restricted –– fixed nets should not be set in areas where bass are being caught and drift netting for bass should be closed.
  • All these restrictions need to be resourced properly and we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to what’s going on at sea. The penalties need to be proportionate, presently they are minimal and do not serve as a disincentive.
  • Any minimal targeted fishing for bass must focus on high dependence (those sustainable hook and line fishermen for whom bass is a high proportion of their landings) and be accompanied by long seasonal closures (6 months) and 100Kg vessel catch limits per month during the open season. Failing this, all gears must be subject to a full moratorium on fishing for bass.
  • The EU needs to agree a long-term bass management plan now and regardless of what the future holds, the UK should be a signatory to it, as we share responsibility for the collapse and therefore also the responsibility to help the stock recover.
  • Most importantly – consumers should stop demanding wild caught bass, and fishmongers, supermarkets and restaurants should refuse to stock or sell wild bass until the stock has recovered.
  • Fishonline makes it very clear that wild bass is not a sustainable or ethical choice.

Would these measures work?

If we look at the success of the cod recovery plan, which industry complained about initially and now takes credit for, we can learn lessons for how to bring back the bass. Cod are now bouncing back (albeit nowhere near their historical high levels) and this “success” is down to EU-wide measures, which were properly enforced. In some ways, Bass is now in the same situation as Cod was some time ago and, despite the predictable complaints; it is indefensible for the bass fishery to continue in its current form. We can’t afford to lose a species for further short-termism, greed or a failure to make an effort not to catch it in the first place. [A major difference between cod and bass is that bass is a non-quota species. Cod in contrast is a quota species which must adhere to ‘relative stability’ between the amount of the total catch for each stock which each Member State gets, year on year. If the same were to happen to bass, the fact the French industry is responsible for the vast majority of catches would favour them, as they would be entitled to that same larger share as the stock rebuilds. Something the UK Government was always keen to avoid, but following Brexit even more so.]

Recreational fishermen are arguing that a new Long term Management Plan is needed for bass and that the fishery should be restricted to recreational and hook & line fishing only, since these deliver significantly higher environmental, social and economic benefits for society from a scarce resource, compared with other forms of commercial fishing.  Now is the time to start taking positive steps to manage the fishery to deliver best value to society, a point we have made repeatedly over the years.

This is an issue the UK can’t solve alone regardless of how you voted.