One of the few bright spots in the depressing downturn of the North Sea cod stock has been the way…
Running out of Options
The NFFO’s East Anglian Committee has highlighted the need for a concerted effort to protect fishing opportunities and the viability of the fleets in the region.
Against the background of generally improving stock biomass and TACs for the main commercial stocks in the North Sea, the small-scale fishery off the East Anglian coast is facing a difficult period with starvation fishing opportunities. This situation is a function of the specific species on which this fishery is based and the blunt management measures in place for those stocks. Despite its credentials as a sustainable historic fishery, this small-scale sector faces an existential threat because of a perfect storm of circumstances surrounding the stocks on which it depends.
Spurdog: Differential recovery, local abundance and species displacement. Spurdog traditionally provided a valuable line fishery in this area. According to ICES advice which covers the whole of the North East Atlantic, the decline of the biomass because of overexploitation of a slow growing species from the 1990s has been stabilised and the stock trends are improving, not least because the auto-line fleet which were the main source of fishing mortality no longer exists. Recovery is not uniform across the whole area however, and there are now very large aggregations throughout the year off the East Anglian coast which are observed to be having a displacement effect on other species like cod, sole and ray.
A review of the management regime is underway. The aim should be how to move towards a commercial fishery at sustainable levels consistent with the continued rebuilding of the stock to MSY. Addressing data deficiencies should be an important part of this initiative.
Cod: The genetically separate sub-population of cod in Southern North Sea has not experienced the steady rebuilding of the stock that has been experienced in the Northern North Sea. This may be due to ecosystem change; competition from the dramatic increase in the biomass of plaice in the North Sea; or some other reason.
Bass: Management measures to reduce fishing mortality on bass have reduced fishing opportunities to 5 tonnes per year for liners and 1.2 tonnes for the gillnet fishery. This low bulk but high value species is locally abundant and the constraints on catches removes an important strand of income. An ICES benchmark of bass is underway and its results may inform a route to a management regime with sustainable fishing opportunities.
Skates and Rays: It is well recognised that the current EU approach to managing the skates and rays fisheries through a single TAC is blunt and ineffective, although sub-TACs increases the choke risk when the landing obligation is extended to these species in January 2019. A review of the management approach is underway which may in time offer some relief.
Sole: Although the overall stock of sole in the southern North Sea is harvested sustainably and the biomass is above MSY trigger level, there is concern that the observed spatial change in effort linked to the shift from beam trawling to pulse fishing may be having local effects off the East Anglian Coast. Quota distribution issues are an added impediment to the contribution that this species might make to the local economy.
Holistic Fisheries Approach
The treatment of species in silos without taking account of the overall viability at fishery level, has led to a situation that jeopardises the survival of the small residual fleet off the East Anglian Coast. Unless a more holistic approach is adopted, we fear that this small but locally important fishery will slip through the cracks between different agencies and responsibilities into oblivion.
As a matter of urgency, we therefore request that a multi-agency task force comprised by Defra, Cefas, MMO and the EIFCA, work together with the fishing industry to ensure the viability of this small, environmentally sustainable and locally important fishery in the face of bureaucratic inertia, blunt fisheries management approaches and artificial constraints.