North Sea cod population numbers have fallen to a critically low level and are in danger of disappearing altogether if drastic action is not taken. These were the findings reported by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) in a recent scientific assessment. In order to protect and restore the population, ICES is advising that the quota for cod fishing be reduced by 70 per cent. It recommends that catches should not exceed 10,457 metric tons in 2020, a 64 per cent drop from this year’s agreed total catch of 29,473 tons and a further 80 per cent drop from 53,000 tons in 2018.
‘This is a real crisis for our seas and fixing it will require an emergency response from governments,’ says Helen McLachlan, fisheries programme manager at WWF. She stresses the importance of acting on the advice of the ICES, saying ‘ministers must listen to scientific advice and take immediate steps to address the dangers of overfishing and poor management.’
This is not the first time that there has been a North Sea cod fishery crisis. In the 1970s, the North Sea cod population peaked at 270,000 tons. In the decades following there was a long period of decline and then in 2006 cod stocks collapsed dramatically to just 44,000 tons. After a decade of recovery efforts, numbers gradually began to recover and in 2017 it received a ‘blue tick’ from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). However, continual fishing of North Sea cod at levels above the ‘Maximum Sustainable Yield’ (the largest average catch that can be captured from a stock under existing environmental conditions), because of ministers frequently setting the total allowable catches above scientific advice, has now led to another dramatic fall in stock levels and has left North Sea cod fishery in a precarious situation.
Samuel Stone, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said, ‘This is a fishery that was on the road to recovery, but failures to reduce fishing pressure have led to serious overfishing and a reversal of fortunes for cod. We have to properly protect our fish stocks for the benefit of our seas, coastal communities and consumers who expect sustainable seafood.’
In response to the declining population, WWF, ClientEarth and the MCS have written a joint letter to both the UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove and the Scottish government to demand they work in partnership with those jointly responsible for fisheries management to implement an emergency plan in order to deliver the key measures necessary to bring about the recovery of this important fish stock. The plan includes:
- a mid-year review of the 2019 quota
- the introduction of onboard cameras and sensors to monitor catch and bycatch properly
- mandatory use of highly selective fishing gear to target specific fish species and to reduce the catch of juveniles
- the identification and policing of Highly Protected Marine Areas for cod, to safeguard spawning areas and young fish
The current cod emergency underlines the longer term need for strong new Fisheries Bills to be introduced as the UK exits the EU. At present, there is no legal commitment to fish sustainably so the campaigners are calling for the bills to include clear commitments to set catch limits at or below scientifically recommended levels. They are also calling for greater accountability through vigorous monitoring and the enforcement of sustainable fishing quotas using on-board cameras and sensors. This could be significant in reversing the declining cod population because currently, it is estimated that less than one per cent of fishing activity is monitored at sea.
The conservation groups are also campaigning for the bills to include legal commitments to hold the UK government to account. Melissa Moore, head of policy at Oceana said, ‘The UK must stop allowing overfishing by 2020 and add a clear legal commitment to fish sustainably in the Fisheries Bill. This is about long-term survival of the fishing industry and all of our fisheries.’
Samuel Stone at MCS concurred that the latest figures highlight the vital need for legal action, ‘It’s a very harsh lesson, but this is why we need to implement legally binding commitments to fish at sustainable levels, to effectively monitor our fisheries and to take an ecosystem based approach to fisheries management.’
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