A recent report from Oceana has raised alarming concerns regarding the state of the UK’s fish populations.
Half of the country’s top ten fish populations are in a “deeply troubling state”, either suffering from overfishing or teetering on the brink of depletion. This dire situation is exacerbated by the UK government’s tendency to set catch limits above the recommendations provided by scientific experts.
The UK’s reliance on ten key fish stocks is at the core of the issue. Five of these stocks, including mackerel, which comprised the largest volume of landings in 2021, are currently being overfished. Additionally, some, like the North Sea cod, have seen their populations decline to critically low levels, pushing them perilously close to a population collapse.
The chef and environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “The stark fact is that overfished stocks have one thing in common: they are on course for collapse. If that is allowed to happen, the human livelihoods will go with them just as fast as the marine ecosystems they support. Our government needs to step up today to prevent the UK from losing its fish and starving its seas.”
The report highlights the irresponsible habit of setting catch limits that exceed scientific advice and urges the government to adopt sustainable practices.
Oceana’s “Taking Stock” report provides a comprehensive overview of 104 fish populations, covering most of the UK’s commercial fish stocks. The results are concerning, with 34% of these populations being overfished and only 45% being fished sustainably. The remaining fish populations could not be accurately assessed due to insufficient data. This data gap underscores the need for increased monitoring and scientific research in order to develop effective conservation strategies.
In addition to fishing pressure, the report also assesses population sizes, revealing that only 41% of these populations are at a healthy size. A quarter of them are in critical condition, with the rest again suffering from a lack of available data. These findings indicate that the fishing industry’s impact extends beyond catch limits, affecting the overall health and sustainability of fish populations.
Hugo Tagholm, the director and vice president of Oceana in the UK, has accused the government of disregarding scientific advice and merely “rubber-stamping” the exploitation of the seas. “Our government claims to be striving for a ‘gold standard’ in fisheries management, but we have not reached it. It is time for the UK to show political leadership and commit to catch limits in line with the science and a clean and ambitious strategy to end overfishing,” he said.
Tagholm emphasises that following scientific recommendations and implementing sustainable catch limits leads to healthy fish populations, benefiting both coastal communities and the environment. Notably, the report pinpoints industrial fisheries, rather than small inshore fishers that comprise the majority of Britain’s fleet, as the main culprits in overfishing. “Only 3% of our quota goes to small inshore fishermen in place like Newlyn,” he said.
The report cites three of the worst-managed populations—Celtic Sea cod, West of Scotland cod, and Irish Sea whiting—as so critically depleted that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), a respected body offering guidance on sustainable yields, has advised a complete ban on all catches. This dire recommendation underscores the urgency of the issue.
Sustainable catch limits are presented as a viable solution to address the crisis. The report demonstrates that for the five best-performing stocks, catch limits for 2020-2023 were largely set in line with ICES scientific advice. Conversely, for four of the five worst-performing stocks, catch limits were established above the scientific recommendations. This data reaffirms the importance of heeding scientific advice to maintain healthy fish populations and ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry.
The report’s primary objective is to provide an evidence-based snapshot of the status of UK fish stocks following the country’s departure from the European Union and the Common Fisheries Policy. Since January 2021, the UK has assumed responsibility for setting total allowable catch limits in its waters. However, due to the shared nature of many fish stocks, the EU and UK have agreed to develop joint recommendations annually through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This collaborative process involves a review of scientific advice provided by ICES.
The Oceana report highlights how repeated political decisions to set catch limits higher than scientifically recommended have led to persistent overfishing. Alarmingly, six stocks that were in a healthy state in 2020 have now declined to critical conditions, while only three have managed to transition from critically low to healthy since 2020. These findings underscore the pressing need for immediate action and a shift towards sustainable fishing practices.
In response to the Taking Stock report, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a package of reforms during the summer which marked a “clear departure from the outdated EU common fisheries policy and which will deliver a profitable fishing industry underpinned by sustainable fish stocks and a healthy marine environment for the future”.
These reforms are underpinned by fisheries management plans, developed in collaboration with industry stakeholders and grounded in the best available scientific data. However, the effectiveness of these reforms remains to be seen, and ongoing vigilance and commitment to sustainable practices are paramount.
“Our priority when negotiating and setting catch limits is always to make sure that fisheries are managed sustainably, as well as safeguarding valuable fishing opportunities for the UK industry.”
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