Spurdog: Out with the Bathwater

Posted on 08/09/15 by Dale Rodmell

Assistant chief executive, Dale Rodmell, reports on why a different approach is needed to conserve protected species such as spurdog.

Newlyn trawler forced to come into harbour with 10 tonnes of spurdog

The sight of a Newlyn trawler having to come into harbour a few weeks ago to clear its overloaded net of spurdog, because there was simply no other safe option available, highlighted once again the ongoing nonsensical and counter-productive nature of policies that ban the landing of accidental by-catch in the name of conservation. Elsewhere, fishermen risk prosecution if they report an inadvertent catch of a basking shark.

Valuable data and knowledge is lost with each unreported incident and each dead animal that is thrown overboard. But despite the fishing industry continuing to witness the steady recovery of species like spurdog, which is making it more and more difficult to avoid them, the cycle of management induced data deficiency leading to perceived precautionary, but ill-informed management goes on.

These vexing issues were aired at a workshop of the Shark By-Watch UK 2 project held in London on 1st September. The workshop brought together a range of science, policy, industry and NGO interests in order to review the current state of knowledge on existing by-catch reduction work and consider potential measures to reduce the incidence of by-catch of protected elasmobranch species, including spurdog, porbeagle, basking shark and common skate.

Avoiding the Fish

The Federation has campaigned for sensible alternatives to these short-sighted measures for some time. Last year we teamed up with Cefas under the Fisheries Science Partnership to develop a proposal for a UK pilot project as an alternative to the 0 TAC for spurdog that currently persists, which in the absence of a change of policy risks becoming the ultimate choke species under the landing obligation.

The pilot project, which has started this year in the Celtic Sea, is centred on a communications platform that the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation will operate as a warning system to enable skippers taking part to communicate the locations of aggregations of spurdog, so that they in turn can take actions to avoid catching them. The hope is that changes in the operation of the fisheries will be able to demonstrate a reduction of fishing induced mortality of spurdog, and will minimise the amount of dead discarding that the industry is forced to undertake. It will also generate much needed information on spurdog-fishery interactions that was lost with the introduction of the 0 TAC. To ensure the longevity of the pilot project, the Council of Ministers will need to agree to reintroduce an appropriate dead spurdog by-catch allowance for the pilot project in 2016.

Avoiding Getting Caught

The approach follows in the footsteps of other fisheries spatial avoidance trials, including the catch quota scheme for the English North Sea demersal trawl fleet that has been in operation for the last few years. But by looking at the problem from the animal's perspective, the Shark By-Watch UK 2 workshop also drew attention to a range of other potential approaches that are aimed at triggering a behavioural response in the species in question, so that they avoid getting caught by fishing gears. These are based around various stimuli triggering sense induced responses in the animals. One particularly promising area of research for elasmobranchs is the potential use of electromagnetic stimuli that could act as either a repellent or as an attractant if deployed as a decoy on baited long lines, for instance.

Learning from existing protected species by-catch reduction efforts

Moving Forward

These possibilities, together with potential physical gear modifications to facilitate escape, have received relatively little scientific investigation to date in the UK and it is clear that we are only beginning to scratch the surface to find technological solutions to resolving protected species by-catch issues. Solutions are often likely to be specific to individual species and individual fisheries and will require detailed testing and fine tuning at sea. Much more coordinated effort and collaboration between scientists and policy makers working closely with industry will be needed.

Lazily sidestepping applied research based solutions and ruling in favour of simplistic bans, which can come at the expense of supplying seafood to feed a growing world population, is not a viable proposition and ultimately amounts to gesture politics and a conservation dead-end.

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