Politicians are ignoring sound science and gambling with the health of Europe’s declining fish stocks, the Royal Society is warning.
Fish stocks are on the brink of collapse, but EU ministers are opting for higher quotas than scientists suggest, according to the Royal Society’s submission to the consultation by the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit on UK Fisheries. Cod and haddock stocks are now less than half those of the early 1970s, with cod stocks in the North Sea at their lowest recorded level.
Professor Patrick Bateson, vice-president of the Royal Society, said: “Current fishing practice is unsustainable. Too many fish are being taken from the sea leaving two few adult fish to reproduce and rebuild the stocks. If such widespread destruction of a natural resource were happening on the land where we could see it, there would be outrage and condemnation, but because it is happening in our oceans it is all too easy to ignore.
“The wrangling over quotas by EU fisheries ministers risks making the situation worse. The level of reduction that is adopted is often less than required, due to lobbying by the fishing industry and by disputes between different countries. With fish readily available in supermarkets and restaurants it is easy to imagine that everything is okay, but unless real action to restrain fishing is taken now there could be nothing left to fish in the future. The need for caution is illustrated by the example of Northern cod stocks off Newfoundland having been fished to collapse. These stocks are still showing little sign of recovery despite a nearly complete cessation of fishing since 1992. It is imperative that we reduce fishing and find ways of addressing and alleviating the economic and social hardship fishers may experience as a result”.
Although the Society believes that the recent establishment of recovery plans for exploited stocks and long-term management plans for other fish resources at an EU level are steps in the right direction, it argues that these have been critically weakened by the continuing delays in their implementation.
The submission also states that fisheries management would benefit if methods for conservation were more enforceable. It recommends that traditional catch quotas should be replaced by controls on fishing effort, for example by restricting the number of days boats spend at sea and the type of equipment they use. Satellite monitoring could be used to monitor the days fishing vessels spend at sea.
The document also proposes the introduction of “no-take” marine reserves or national parks of the sea, as part of a more integrated approach to fisheries management. Evidence suggests that marine reserves can be a powerful tool to help rebuild stocks and habitats damaged by fishing. Overall abundance of fish is 3.7 times higher than outside the reserves.
The document calls for Government subsidies to be withdrawn from the fishing industry. Subsidies provide funds for new vessels and gear, so further encourage the over exploitation of fishing resources. It recommends that transitional aid should be introduced as quotas are reduced. These measures should only be used to financially compensate fishermen for short-term losses as the industry moves to a permanently lower level of fishing effort and capacity.

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