Organisations representing Britain’s 800,000 sea anglers have reacted furiously to the news that EU Fisheries Ministers, including the UK’s George Eustice, have caved in to pressure from commercial fishing interests and granted exemptions to the highly damaging bass gill net fishery.

This sector, described by Eustice as “low impact” is actually responsible for by far the greatest over-fishing of threatened bass stocks in the UK. It will now only be closed for two months of the year rather than six as was planned in the proposed European moratorium on commercial bass fishing during the spawning period.

For the UK alone, this represents an increase in gill net landings of 131 tonnes compared with the scientists’ recommendation of a maximum of 541 tonnes of landings in 2016 for the entire Northern bass stock. Furthermore the gill net monthly catch limit per vessel has been raised from 1.0 to 1.3 tonnes, making a nonsense of claims to be conserving bass stocks in line with the evidence and best scientific advice.

At the same time, the £200 million recreational bass sector will see a zero bag limit in the first six months and in the second half of the year the bag limit for anglers will be reduced from three fish a day to just one. Whilst anglers were pleased to have retained Catch and Release fishing for bass during the first half of the year, they claim that the overall package has unfairly targeted the one activity that is most sustainable and creates the greatest economic benefit, in favour of allowing what is virtually ‘business as usual’ for the netters.

Prior to this week’s Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels to consider the Commission’s proposals, both the Angling Trust and the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society (BASS) lobbied George Eustice to retain Catch and Release angling from January to June, to remove the gill nets and make bass a hook and line fishery only.

The only UK commercial sectors that look like seeing any significant reduction in catches are the trawlers and seiners which account for only 15% of all UK bass landing, whereas gill netting is responsible for over half of total UK bass catches each year and so should be the major target of these restrictions.

The figures recommended by the scientists at ICES in order to rebuild European bass stocks were for an 80% reduction in landings in 2015 and a 90% reduction in 2016 down to 541 tonnes in total. By watering down the Commission’s proposals, through an increase in the monthly vessel catch limits for both line fishing and gill netting and restricting their closure period to just February and March, the impact is now likely to deliver little more than a 20% reduction in mortalities. By contrast anglers will be expected to return every bass they catch from January to June and then see their bag limit for the remaining six months slashed by 66%.

Angling Trust Campaigns Chief Martin Salter said:

“This is nothing more than a conservation con trick by politicians who have ignored the science and capitulated to commercial pressure from the very sector that has caused the decline of bass stocks in the first place. Anglers are supposed to feel grateful for being allowed to return our bass to the sea during the first half of 2016, whilst for four months of that period gill netters will actually see their catch limits increased.

“And how gill netting, which is responsible for more than half of all commercial UK bass landings and catches two and a half times more than any other method, can be labelled ‘low impact’ simply beggars belief.

“For George Eustice to describe what has been agreed as ‘a good result’ for bass whilst at the same time claiming on TV that his local netsmen will be virtually unaffected by ‘this generous exemption’ is downright disingenuous and deeply insulting to Britain’s anglers and anyone else who cares about sustainable fish stocks.”

Nigel Horsman of BASS added:

“Once again, our politicians have ignored the scientific advice, ignored the economic facts, thought only about the short term and given in to the bullying tactics of the commercial fishing sector, shafting the future bass fishing prospects of hundreds of thousands of sea anglers in the process.

“The rapid decline in bass stocks will continue under this deal, giving a real risk that the whole bass fishery for everyone will have to be shut in the next year or two, just as we warned the Minister directly last week.

“A major plank in the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy was to take politically motivated, short term dealing out of fishery management and replace it with long term decision making based on ecological, economic and social evidence. Our politicians have just driven a coach and horses through their own new rules, proving again, that they are not to be trusted with anything to do with fishery management.

“Sea anglers are justifiably furious with this outcome for not only threatening their future sport, but also for the blatant disregard for any fairness or justice in allocating these ‘fishing opportunities’ between anglers and commercial fishermen. This is a shameful result.”

Long standing bass campaigner and Angling Trust Ambassador Malcolm Gilbert said:

“The recreational sea angling sector has been well and truly screwed over by the politicians. This year, we have had a bag limit of three bass. In 2016, whereas, gill netters can now fish during four of the first six months and retain/land up to 1300 kilos in each of those months, recreational anglers have a zero bag limit.

“For the second half of the year, again whilst gill netters can retain/land 1300 kilos each month, recreational sea anglers are subject to a one bass bag limit. [Defra must have told the Minister that in 2014 only 111 vessels out of 1,331 in the UK managed to catch 1000 kilos of bass in a month, so the vast majority were unaffected by such a limit, yet the Minister has seen fit to increase the limit to 1300 kilos for gill netters, effectively dismissing the scientific advice with similar contempt with which he has treated the recreational sea angling community.]

“This debacle is not only grossly unfair to recreational sea anglers but even more importantly, the bass resource itself is going to be subjected to far higher levels of fishing mortality than the scientists recommend. In the long term it is a catastrophic outcome for all of us who crave restoration of bass stocks with truly sustainable long term exploitation.”

The Angling Trust will now be briefing MPs on the consequences of these latest decisions on bass and is hoping to see a debate in the Commons in order to hold the minister to account for this failure to deliver meaningful conservation measures and some of the extraordinary claims that he has made in defence of unsustainable fishing methods.

George Eustice (DEFRA) said:
This is important to ensure fishing opportunities support the recovery and long-term sustainability of our stocks and, in line with this approach, fishing restrictions were also agreed to aid the recovery of sea bass stocks which have suffered from a long-term decline. This means that next year there will be a six month closure of commercial bass fisheries (January to June), with partial exemptions for low impact, inshore fisheries. Recreational anglers will also continue to be able to target the fish for in the first six months of the year on the basis they release them back, alive, into the water.