Battling for Bass
Martin Salter speaks out on the current campaign to protect an iconic sporting species.
As someone who lists among his interests: fishing, the environment and politics, it is always an intriguing moment for me when these themes collide. And so it was the other day when, after months of furious lobbying and agitation about the need to conserve stocks of sea bass in the North Atlantic fishery, we finally had our day in the chamber of the House of Commons.
This was thanks to newly-elected North Cornwall MP, and mad keen angler, Scott Mann who agreed to lead a backbench debate to highlight the unfairness of the current bass measures on recreational anglers. The debate was titled ‘Conservation of sea bass and the effect of related EU measures on the UK recreational fishing industry.’
But first some background....
The European bass Dicentrarchus labrax is an iconic sporting fish, much loved by anglers with a recreational value of £200m to the economy and only comparatively recently considered a suitable table fish thanks to changing tastes and various promotions by celebrity chefs. In the 1980s bass were primarily pursued as a recreational species but over the last 30 years commercial harvesting has increased to the point where stocks are in danger of a catastrophic decline.
Organisations like the National Federation of Sea Anglers and the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society (B.A.S.S.) have been campaigning for the introduction of bass conservation measures for more than 20 years. Things looked hopeful in 2004 when the Net Benefits report by the Cabinet Office recommended that fishery managers look at making bass a recreational-only species.
Sadly, the reports stayed on the shelf, bass stocks continued to be overfished and the unsustainable minimum size limit (msl) of 36cm remained in place until last year’s long overdue rise to 42cm – the absolute smallest size at which bass reach maturity and are able to reproduce.
Scientific advice on the status of bass stocks is issued annually by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES). In June 2014 ICES recommended an 80% cut in bass mortality across the EU area for 2015. This followed the 2013 advice for a 36% cut, which was stupidly ignored by the politicians. Far from reducing the 2014 bass landings by UK vessels actually rose by 30% - much for all the hype about nasty Europeans coming over here and stealing our fish.
Currently the bass stock biomass estimated at 5,270 tonnes across the North Atlantic fishery, a mere 20 tonnes above the limit of 5,250 at which future regeneration becomes critically endangered and well below the trigger point of concern set by ICES at 8,000 tonnes.
Following the failure to reach agreement at the European Fisheries Council meeting in December 2014 the UK took the unusual step of pressing the European Commission (EC) to introduce a series of emergency measures to protect bass. These included a new minimum landing size of 42cm and a ban on the trawling of spawning aggregations in order to help save declining bass stocks in the English Channel, southern North Sea and Irish and Celtic Seas. These measures came in the following month but the situation continued to deteriorate and the ICES advice for 2016 recommended a 90% reduction in landings on the previous year. The emergency measures are estimated to have reduced catches by only 36% and the EC accept they simply didn't go far enough.
Bass fishing in 2016
On the run up to the crucial European Council meeting in December those of us whose job it is to speak up for fish and fishing approached both the Commission and our own ministers to make it clear that whilst most recreational sea anglers were prepared to play their part they expected to see fair, effective and proportionate package of measures that would help rebuild bass stocks.
When the new proposals from the Commission where eventually published they included a complete bass fishing ban for commercial vessels and recreational anglers (including catch and release) in the first half of 2016 and in the second half of the year a monthly one tonne catch limit for vessels targeting sea bass and a one fish per day bag limit for recreational anglers. This was much more severe than anticipated and was a consequence of the years when the politicians ignored the dire warnings of a stock collapse.
Now banning catch and release fishing for bass was never going to work - after all how can you stop a bass attacking your lure or fly when targeting other species? At the Angling Trust we lobbied strongly in favour of retaining catch and release and against the one fish recreational bag limit describing the proposals as unfair, unenforceable and totally disproportionate.
We produced data and briefings for our own Fisheries Minister, George Eustice, disputing the ridiculous figures that claimed that anglers were responsible for 25% of all bass mortalities and showing the high survival rates for returned fish. And while the ministers trekked off to Brussels to argue over the quota allocations we all waited to see what would emerge from the latest round of negotiations.
And what a pig's ear they made of it!
Of course we were pleased to hear that we had won the fight to retain catch and release but angered and appalled to learn that EU Fisheries Ministers had once again ignored the science and caved in to pressure from commercial fishing interests. They had cynically and granted four month exemptions to commercial hook and line and the highly damaging bass gill net fishery - responsible for over 50% of all landings – which they wrongly referred to as ‘low impact’. Why cynical? Because the only months that the netsman were to be restricted were February and March when they catch fewest fish.
Worse still, the Commission's plans for bass conservation were further watered down by the politicians when they increased the monthly commercial vessel catch limits from 1 tonne to 1.3 tonnes. By contrast the ban on anglers from keeping any bass during the months of January to June and limited to just one fish per day for the rest of the year were nodded through.
Thousands of anglers are now at risk of criminalisation if they try to keep the self-same bass that a netsman is free to kill during the January to June moratorium.
The current situation cannot endure. The recreational bag limits are disproportionate and grossly unfair, they make a mockery of the law and fail to acknowledge that recreational sea angling is the most sustainable form of bass fishing which delivers the best economic return. Displaying stunningly poor judgement government ministers have tried to face both ways on the issue and have been caught out playing fast and loose with the facts:
• They boasted on BBC TV that the measures would have little or no impact on inshore commercial boats so how is this a bass conservation measure?
• They claimed to have secured a good deal for bass when in fact they increased vessel catch limits meaning more bass will be killed.
• They tried to say that anglers were happy with a one fish bag limit when they were told in no uncertain terms that his was unfair and unacceptable.
• They claimed that because drift nets were subject to the full six month moratorium some 90% of all gill netting would be restricted yet their own figures show that it would be less than a third.
With the protests mounting some 14,000 extremely angry anglers submitted a petition to Parliament and the Angling Trust made sure the issue was on the agenda of national TV and press. We mobilised our supportive MPs and we were extremely grateful to Simon Hart, the MP for Pembrokeshire, for getting us in front of the Environment Minister Liz Truss so she could hear anglers outrage for herself. The meeting with the Cabinet Minister was given further relevance by the forthcoming debate secured by Scott Mann where the actions of ministers would be put under scrutiny.
Bass in Parliament
On the run up to the day Angling Trust and BASS members had been lobbying their MPs to attend this important parliamentary debate to speak support of introducing revised measures that reduce bass mortality by restricting rather than increasing harmful commercial harvesting methods such as gill netting. We asked them to promote sustainable fishing methods such as hook & line fishing for both the commercial and recreational sectors.
After an excellent debate which can be read HERE or watched in full, starting at 15.03, HERE
Scott Mann MP moved the following motion which was agreed without dissent:
“That this House believes that the recent EU restrictions on recreational sea bass fishing are unfair and fail to address the real threat to the future viability of UK sea bass stocks; and calls on the Government to make representations within the Council of the EU on the reconsideration of the imposition of those restrictions.”
The vast majority of MPs who spoke were in favour of our calls for bass to be managed primarily as a recreational species alongside a sustainable hook and line commercial fishery. Many newly elected MPs highlighted the importance of recreational fishing and attacked the way that anglers had been treated as opposed to the exemptions handed out to the gill netters.
For me the only disappointing note was the failure by some to acknowledge that cooperation between countries is vital to managing a shared fishery and a migratory species like bass. The vast majority of our bass are caught by our own inshore fleet but some of the more rabid Euro sceptics seemed blind to this inconvenient truth.
Replying for the government environment minister Rory Stewart conceded that they may have to revisit commercial catch limits next year in order to comply with scientific advice. He also repeated the government's offer to work with recreational angling organisations on a long term management plan for bass which builds on the lessons of the recovery of the striped bass fishery in the USA where a greater proportion of the stock is reserved for recreational fishing.
The recovery of the American Striped Bass shows what can be done with good conservation and sensible fishery management.
We put a huge amount of effort into getting this debate and briefing MPs so that they understood the genuine anger and frustration of recreational sea anglers at the appalling way they were treated last year by the EU fisheries ministers. It would be churlish not to welcome the commitment from Rory Stewart on behalf of the government to re visit the commercial catch limits and to work with the recreational sector on a long term plan for bass learning the lessons of proper professional fishery management from places like Ireland and the USA. However, after such a big let down the government really does now need to follow up their warm words with some practical action to rebuild bass stocks and properly recognise the economic value of recreational fishing.
This week we will be writing to thank all the MPs who spoke up for angling and to ask them to keep up the pressure on the government ahead of this year's European Council Ministers meeting in December. One thing I can guarantee is that there will be no let-up in effort or energy from the Angling Trust or our colleagues at BASS when it comes to fighting for a sustainable future for this wonderful sporting fish.
This feature forms part of Martin Salter's Fighting for Fishing blog, and is reproduced here with his permission.
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