Overfishing brings more bad news to struggling ports

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Friday December 15, 2000
The Guardian

There used to be 2m tonnes of mackerel swimming in the North Sea, and even more herring. For centuries they had been supporting communities all along the east coast.

Annual catches of 1m tonnes were not unknown but they gradually dropped to nothing. Mackerel are now commercially extinct, in order words, there are so few it is not worth fishermen leaving port. Herring are recovering after numbers slumped so low in 1995 that fishing for them was banned.

Cod, haddock, hake, plaice and prawns are going the same way. The sea has lost its former abundance and some scientists believe the end looms for almost all commercial fishing.

Not that it has to be that way. Two accidental experiments of fish conservation - the first and second world wars when no fishing effort was made in the North Sea - yielded recoveries of all species in the five years after hostilities ended.

Cod landings were more than 300,000 tonnes a year in the 1950s and 60s. This year British fishermen were restricted in their catches to 34,262 tonnes. Up to November 9 this year, boats had only managed to catch 23,045 tonnes.

All those extra fish in the post war years were caught without the sophisticated equipment essential on the modern fleet. There can only be one explanation, there are no longer any more cod to catch - 95% of supplies are already imported.

The reasons are obvious. For the last 20 years smaller and smaller cod have been taken. Instead of 5ft monsters, cod are sometimes only inches long - 80% of those caught are below breeding age.

It is not that fisherman or politicians have been unaware of this impending disaster. Scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, employed by the European commission, have been issuing increasingly dire warnings of the imminent end of the stock.

They pointed to the fate of the richest cod fishery in the world - the Grand Banks off Newfoundland which collapsed eight years ago and has never recovered. So why, with the spectre of what happened in Newfoundland, and past experience of the disappearing mackerel and herring, have the commission failed to act?

Each year officials have taken the scientists' advice and watered it down, passing it on to the ministers of EU states who have compromised still further. Instead of smaller quotas which would allow stocks to recover, fishermen bullied their representatives to allow larger allocations to save the industry from collapse. Using ever more sophisticated equipment and faster, more efficient boats the fishermen caught more and more of the remaining stock disguising the fact that total numbers of each species were going down.

This year the catastrophe has finally caught up with the industry. It is not just cod that have become depleted. Plaice, haddock, whiting, prawns, sole and hake are in steep decline. Partly this is because as one species has become depleted fishing effort has concentrated on others. Haddock particularly are in danger because there are less cod.

There are signs that the industry is coming to its senses. For years fishermen and conservation organisations were at loggerheads. Last year for the first time parts of the Irish Sea were closed for 10 weeks in the areas known to be used by cod for spawning. This year the closure will happen again and when the boats are finally allowed out they will use larger mesh and have escape hatches for smaller fish. Its success will not be known until the cod reach the breeding age of three years. The same proposals are being discussed for the North Sea and the West coast of Scotland.

Not that all fisherman have been won over. One of the greatest scandals of the last 20 years has been the practice of discarding undersized dead fish back into the sea and catching bigger ones to get full value out of the quota system.

This year French and Spanish fisherman were accused of not taking proper conservation measures to release undersized hake. This has led to the demand by the commission of a 74% cut in quota to barely 6,000 tonnes of hake. Many fishermen face bankruptcy as a result.

This downward spiral has led to dishonesty. Promises to take fishing boats out of the industry have not been met. Blind eyes have been turned to "black fish" - extra landings not part of the quota system.

But as ministers meet in Brussels it is the moment of truth. Euan Dunn, senior marine officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said "For too long ministers have failed miserably to stem the relentless decline of stocks. It would be unforgivable if they did not bite the bullet this time - but it may already be too late for North Sea cod."

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