Recent years have seen bass in the headlines of the mainstream media in the UK and the rest of Europe due to an alarming decline in the numbers of this species. This has led to Europe-wide measures being put in place to try to restore the breeding stock of bass and has seen some unprecedented restrictions on both anglers and the commercial fishing industry. This article explores the impact which the changes in laws and legislation has had on the angling community and the other groups with an interest in this species.
Bass – A Species Which is Increasing in Demand
In 2013 a stock assessment by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) – a powerful independent organisation which advises the European Union 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 gone from being ignored by both consumers and commercial fishermen to becoming a sought after species with celebrity chefs increasingly using bass in their recipes (2). This has led to a huge rise in catches and consumption of the species: 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 coverage to bass fishing.
The rising demand for this species has had the effect of rising the value 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 was little to no restrictions on how much bass could be caught (4). Inevitably this led to the significant decline in the numbers of bass which eventually 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 reduced to such a low level that they might never recover.
Action to Protect Bass
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 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 and in late 2014 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 during the breeding season in January to April 2015. Mostly carried out by French vessels, pair trawling is monumentally damaging as it involves dragging a vast net between two boats and specifically targeted bass as they gathered to spawn (6), wiping out huge numbers of bass as they are gathering to spawn the next generation of the species. 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. There would be further limits on commercial fishing for bass including a ban on fishing for bass in the spawning season 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 applied to recreational fishing. Anglers would be banned from retaining any bass at all from January to June 2016 and then limited to one bass per angler per day from July to December of that year (9). The 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 (10).
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 for half of 2016 (11). 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 (11). 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 (11). 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 while commercial fishing industry 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.
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 (12). In particular the increasing quota of the gill net fishery angered 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 restricted. Anglers found significant support for their cause. North Cornwall MP Scott Mann who 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 (13).
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 (14). Unfortunately, prior to the protest Mr. Eustice 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.
Brexit and the Possibility of a Total Bass Ban
In 2016 the Brexit referendum took place in the United Kingdom, with the nation voting in favour of leaving the European Union by 52% to 48% (15). This led to a period of political turmoil in the UK with further general elections taking place in 2017 and 2019. While the prospect of Britain leaving the EU would have a huge impact on the way UK fisheries are managed and controlled as the UK would no longer have to follow EU-wide legislation and rules, meaning that the UK could diverge from EU bass restrictions and bring in its own rules on bass conservation. However, the unstable political situation meant that the UK did not actually leave the EU until the 31st of January 2020, and then entered an eleven month transition period where all EU rules and regulations still applied until 31st December 2020. For this reason the Europe-wide rules and regulations on bass fishing discussed below still apply to the UK (but see section on Brexit for what will follow for the UK and bass fishing from 2021 onward).
Further important news emerged in 2016. ICES put forward the advice that, despite the limits and restrictions which had been brought in, bass stocks were still not recovering and remained at dangerously low levels. They therefore recommended a total ban on all forms of recreational and commercial fishing for bass should be brought in 2017 (16), pointing out that even if all forms of bass fishing were completely stopped in 2017 stocks would still be critically low and would take several years to show any signs of meaningful recovery. Representatives of the commercial fishing industry stated that they were not convinced that the information ICES was acting on was up to while 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 (16).
B.A.S.S. and the Angling Trust put out a joint statement which said 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. They also suggested that bass could become a recreational/sustainable hook and line commercial species only (17), 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 (18). 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 (19).
No Total Bass Ban in 2017
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 was 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 (20).” These vessels had a maximum catch limit of ten tons per year, and had 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 were not allowed to specifically target bass but could retain 250kg to cover “unavoidable bycatch” while demersal trawlers and seiners could retain up to 400kg of bass bycatch (21). The Council also stated that recreational anglers were “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), the same restrictions which anglers faced in 2016.
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 a proportion of bass they inadvertently caught as bycatch. The Council also said that these measures would 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 had not transpired, with the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council attempting to keep all parties happy while simultaneously trying to rebuild bass stocks. Commercial fishermen who had strongly argued against banning gill nets from targeting bass (23) 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 bass bycatch (23). However, the same regulations which had been imposed in 2016 being once again applied to recreational anglers in 2017 was hugely disappointing news for the charter boat sector which has seen revenues badly hit by the restrictions on retaining bass (24).
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 were strictly for genuine unavoidable bycatch, but the fisheries ministers in both London and Cardiff appeared to be interpreting this as a monthly catch allowance when they publicly referred to the figures as a ‘provision’ for bass (25). The governments of the two nations eventually released a statement clarifying that the allowances were for bycatch only and that commercial demersal trawlers and seiners could not target specifically target bass (26).
Commercial and Recreational Restrictions Continue
There was speculation that all recreational fishing for bass would be banned for 2018, after the European Commission proposed to ministers that anglers should not be able to retain a single bass in 2018 and be banned from targeted fishing for bass for the first six months of the year. Although details of exactly how this would be enforced were never made clear, this would presumably would have meant that anyone who was using lures or tackle which could be deemed to specifically target bass would be committing an offence, even if they released any bass they caught. This would have provoked outrage in the angling community as charter boat skippers, bass guides and tackle shops and websites would have their livelihoods seriously affected (and in some cases completely gone out of business), but some commercial fishing for bass would be allowed to continue.
Bass fishing groups, recreational anglers and representatives of the sea fishing tackle industry lobbied MPs and launched petitions to ensure that anglers voices were heard in the debate. In the end bass angling was not banned for 2018, but anglers were only allowed to fish for bass on a catch and release basis for the whole year (27). Restrictions on commercial fishing for bass also continued with a closed period of two months for commercial bass fishing imposed in the spawning season (28). As well as this commercial fishermen who used hook and line to catch bass had the amount of bass they could catch halved from 1000kg a month to 500kg, while commercial trawlers could not specifically target bass and had the amount of accidentally caught bass they could retain reduced 3% of their catch to 1%. Commercial fishermen continued to complain about the restrictions on bass fishing, making the point that the limits on the number of bass which can be retained lead to large amounts of bass being discarded as bycatch. A group of Plymouth fishermen claimed that they had thrown £120,000 worth of dead bass back into the sea in a week, and also said that some vessels had discarded £23,000 of bass in a single day (29).
In an interview with the BBC Radio 4’s consumer affairs programme You and Yours fisheries minister George Eustice defended the new measures for 2018, and said that they were stronger as the restrictions imposed on commercial and recreational anglers for 2016 and 2017 had not done enough to reduce bass catches, as the number of bass caught had only gone down 17% rather than the expected 50% (30). He also stated that the European Commission had survey data that said that recreational angling was having a bigger impact than thought, but the government was “a little bit sceptical” about this data and had asked to have it reviewed, and that the European Commission was “overstating” the impact of recreational fishing. He also confirmed that spot checks on charter boats by the MMO (Marine Management Organisation) and IFCAs (Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authorities) across the UK would be used to ensure that anglers were not retaining bass in 2018. In terms of Brexit he said the promise to increase quotas for commercial fishermen would only be implemented if it was within safe biological limits, meaning that this would not apply to bass until their numbers had increased (30).
Welcome News for Anglers During 2018
Speculation continued through the summer of 2018 that regulations could be changed in favour of allowing anglers to retain bass during the second half of the year. This was due to bass stocks being higher than ICES initially believed, and new research showing that bass which were caught and released by anglers had a higher survival rate than previously thought. In September 2018 it was confirmed that from the 1st October to the 31st December 2018 anglers would be allowed to retain a single bass per angler per day. This applied to both shore and boat anglers (31). The change, which was welcomed by anglers and angling groups,
Regulations for 2019 and 2020
In 2019 anglers would be able to fish for bass on a catch and release only basis in months of January, February and March and then November and December. For the rest of the year anglers will be able to retain one bass (as long as it is above the minimum size limit of 42cm) per angler per day (32). This was seen as an improvement for anglers as 2018 had begun with bass being restricted to catch and release only for the entire year. Commercial restrictions included observing a closed period in February and March, limiting bass bycatch which could be retained at 1% and banning certain commercial methods such as drift nets. Things improved further for recreational anglers in 2020 with anglers only having to fish for bass on a catch and release basis in January, February and December of the year, and able to retain two bass per angler per day during the rest of the year (33). This marked the first time anglers could legally retain two bass per day since 2015. Commercial restrictions were also eased with the amount of retainable bycatch for trawl and seine caught bass being increased from 1% to 5% and the quota for the hook and line fishery going from 5.5 to 5.7 tonnes (33).
The Future and Brexit
Clearly the European Union and the European Commission 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 fishing for this species, means that there is a near-impossible balancing act to perform.
The plight of bass has also ignited a conflict between the recreational and commercial fishing sectors, with both groups determined that the other should shoulder their share of the restrictions on fishing for this species. While anglers have not had bass fishing banned they have seen the fact that they can only fish for bass on a catch and release basis or had bag limits imposed since 2016 as a Draconian measure, relative to the small number of bass that anglers retain. Commercial fishermen have of course had their limits and restrictions placed on their fishing, and also have had to observed a closed season when they cannot fish for bass.
The positive news is that the restrictions placed on both commercial and recreational fishing have been eased in 2019 and 2020 – a sign that bass stocks are indeed recovering and the limitations which both groups have observed are beginning to translate into improving bass stocks. Another issue, and one which has the potential to transform the entire situation is Brexit. All of the legislation which has been discussed in this article has been set by the various agencies of the European Union and therefore applied across Europe. At the time of writing [February 2020] the UK has just left the European Union and has entered a transition phase which will last until the end of 2020 (34).
During this phase the UK will continue to observe all EU legislation and therefore the rules on commercial and recreational bass fishing. However, once we are into 2021 the UK may diverge from European legislation and set its own laws and rules on bass catches and bass conservation. This could be a source of potential conflict if UK anglers or commercial fishermen (or both) are allowed to take more bass than their EU counterparts. Exactly how this will play out depends on the results of negotiations between the UK and the EU which will take place during 2020.
This article was last updated in February 2020 and will be updated as more information on bass stocks and fishing comes to light.
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- Brexit: What is the Transition Period?, BBC News, 31/1/2020.