Irish Sea Recovery

29th November 2010 in Irish Sea

The apparent failure of cod recovery measures applied to the Irish Sea demersal fisheries since 1999 to make headway in rebuilding the cod stocks raises fundamental questions about the approach applied by the Commission and the Council of Ministers.

The proposal to close the cod fishery in 2012 (presumably meaning a zero TAC) and in the meantime, for 2011, to cut the already miniscule quota and days-at-sea allocation by 50% speaks of a desperation born from that failure.

There are a number of key dimensions to the Irish Sea fisheries:

  • The Irish Sea is different. The fact that the Irish Sea was the only place that successfully developed a semi-pelagic cod fishery suggests that cod inhabit a different place in the water column than elsewhere. This alone should suggest that measures developed for the North Sea might not work in the Irish Sea because cod exhibit different behaviours there.
  • Cod recovery measures have been applied in the Irish Sea for longer than anywhere else in EU waters, apparently to least effect
  • The Irish Sea is a relatively small enclosed sea yet the level of understanding about the biological and human systems that comprise its fisheries are poorly understood. It is one of the classic “data-poor” fisheries that ICES is concerned about
  • The apparent failure of cod stocks to rebuild comes despite a drastic reduction in the fishing capacity of the demersal fleets in the Irish Sea. As an example the Northern Irish demersal fleet which targeted cod, haddock and hake has been reduced by decommissioning or attrition from 40 to 2 vessels.
  • The most comprehensive discard monitoring programme in the UK suggests that discards of cod in the Northern Irish fleet are very low – a handful of tonnes each year
  • Fishing effort in the Irish Sea has largely been corralled into the nephrops fishery. This dependence on a single species is not healthy, although to date the science confirms that the Irish Sea nephrops stocks are robust and stable

It is because the fisheries in the Irish Sea are different; because they are not responding to the current cod management plan; because the fisheries data sets are so poor; and because the Irish Sea measures have largely been applied as an adjunct, or afterthought, to the much larger North Sea and West of Scotland fisheries, that there has been a consistent demand for a policy and science review focused specifically on the Irish Sea fisheries.

This was the key demand from the Irish Sea section of the Cod Symposium, organised by the North Sea and North West Waters regional advisory councils in Edinburgh in March 2007. Had this approach been pursued we might by now have a better understanding of cod in the Irish Sea fisheries and have been in a position to develop a customised cod recovery plan relevant to the conditions in the Irish Sea. No one can say whether such an approach would have been successful, not least because the Cod Symposium made clear that there is a strong ecosystem dimension to the decline of cod in European waters, but it can hardly have fared worse in biological or fishery terms than the current plan. The demand for a review of the Irish Sea fisheries was also a key conclusion that emerged from a meeting of Irish Sea interests in Belfast in 2009, convened by the North West Waters RAC.

The highly significant announcement by ICES that it is reviewing its assessment models with the intention of moving away from increasingly complex data-hungry models towards a simpler approach capable of incorporating information generated by fisheries science partnership projects, is nowhere more pertinent than the Irish Sea.

It is now clear that continuing the Commission’s approach, applied over the last decade, of recurrent quota reductions, reinforced by days-at-sea restrictions is not likely to be the recipe for rebuilding cod stocks in the Irish Sea. A zero TAC for Irish Sea cod in 2012 and a 50% reduction in 2011 will achieve nothing but to increase frustration and discards. A more fruitful outcome from the forthcoming December Council would be a Council Declaration directing the Commission to work with fisheries scientists and key stakeholders on a fundamental science and policy review of the demersal fisheries in the Irish Sea. The aim of the review should be to:

  • Obtain a sound understanding of the biological and human dimensions of the demersal fisheries in the Irish Sea
  • Identify the principle sources of mortality of cod in the Irish Sea and adopt appropriate management responses
  • Design customised management measures that would optimise the prospects for a recovery of the cod stocks in the Irish Sea over time, whilst maintaining and developing the economically important non-cod demersal fisheries such as nephrops
  • Involve the Irish Sea fishing organisations and individual vessel operators in the design and implementation of recovery measures
  • Explore the scope for using available technologies and incentive based approaches to improve cod avoidance fishing strategies in the Irish Sea
  • Put the fisheries science partnership approach at the heart of future science programmes in the Irish Sea