Bass Battles Rage in Europe

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Bass average two to six pounds with a ten pounder considered a trophy fish.
Bass average two to six pounds with a ten pounder considered a trophy fish.

THE European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax) is an iconic sporting fish, much loved by anglers and with a recreational value of £200m to the UK economy. Even my Aussie mates concede that this is the one fish that they would love to catch should they pay me a visit at the right time of the year.

Bass have only recently been considered a suitable table fish thanks to changing tastes and various promotions by celebrity TV chefs. In the 1980s they 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.

Here in the UK organisations like the Angling Trust and the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society have been campaigning for the introduction of bass conservation measures for more than 20 years. More recently we have joined forces with our European colleagues to present a united front and to counter the short sighted attitude and destructive influence of the commercial lobby. Things looked hopeful in 2004 when the Net Benefits report by Tony Blair's Cabinet Office recommended that fishery managers look at making bass a recreational-only species. Sadly, these reports stayed on the shelf, bass stocks continued to be over fished and the unsustainable minimum size limit of 36cms remained in place until last year’s long overdue rise to 42cms – 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); not to be confused with the terrorist organisation with a similar sounding name!

In June 2014 ICES recommended an 80 per cent cut in bass mortality across the EU area for 2015. This followed the 2013 advice for a 36 per cent cut which was stupidly ignored by the politicians. Far from reducing the 2014 bass landings by UK vessels actually rose by 30 per cent. Currently the bass stock biomass is 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 42cms and a ban on the trawling of spawning aggregations in order to help save declining bass stocks in the English Channel, the 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 per cent reduction in landings on the previous year. The emergency measures are estimated to have reduced catches by only 36 per cent and the EC accept they simply didn't go far enough.

Bass fishing measures for 2016

In the run up to the crucial EC meeting in December we 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 were far tougher than expected and 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.

Now banning catch and release fishing for bass was never going to work - after all how can you stop a bass attacking your lure when targeting other species like wrasse or pollack? 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 Ministers disputing the ridiculous figures that claimed that anglers were responsible for 25 per cent 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.

Whilst we were initially pleased to hear that we had won the fight to retain catch and release fishing we were angered to learn that EU Fisheries Ministers had once again ignored the science and caved in to pressure from commercial fishing interests. They had cynically granted four month exemptions to commercial hook and line and the highly damaging bass gill net fishery - responsible for over 50 per cent of all landings; which they wrongly referred to as “low impact”.

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 1t to 1.3t. 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 same bass that a netter 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 claimed to have secured a good deal for bass when in fact they increased vessel catch limits meaning more bass will be killed.
  • 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 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 per cent 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 secured a special debate in the Chamber of the House of Commons which unanimously passed the following motion:

“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.

The debate which can be read HERE or watched in full HERE (starting at 15:03) prompted government ministers to concede that they may have to revisit commercial catch limits next year in order to comply with scientific advice. Under pressure they have now offered 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.

While it is great to see recreational fishing organisations in Europe working together to bring pressure to bear for sustainable fisheries management in which anglers interests are recognised, we should never have got into this mess on the first place. Follow the science, let the bass breed, stop commercial over fishing, introduce sensible bag and size/slot limits, protect the spawning aggregations and establish designated nursery areas. It's hardly rocket science and there are many examples from around the world, including the kingfish in New South Wales, where the adoption of sensible conservation policies has seen fish stocks recover. What a shame then that our politicians in Europe have been such slow learners when it comes to bass.

Martin Salter is the National Campaigns Coordinator for the Angling Trust - the UK's peak recreational fishing body

Bass are a fast swimming predator that looks good, fights hard and can be caught on surface and subsurface lures as well as on bait and fly.
Bass are a fast swimming predator that looks good, fights hard and can be caught on surface and subsurface lures as well as on bait and fly.
Bass Facts:

The European sea bass is a popular and widely distributed sport fish which can be found from the southern North Sea through the Atlantic coast and down into the Mediterranean. Bass are a slow-growing and late maturing species capable of living for 20 years or more. Their reproduction success is highly susceptible to environmental conditions.

Bass average two to six pounds with a ten pounder considered a trophy fish. They are a fast swimming predator that looks good, fights hard and can be caught on surface and subsurface lures as well as on bait and fly.

Adult bass migrate to feed and spawn in aggregations offshore. Eggs use oceanic currents to drift inshore where they hatch. Once hatched the juvenile bass aggregate in nursery areas around the coast. At aged approximately six years bass begin to move out of nursery areas and disperse where they feed on small fish and Crustacea. Research indicates that adult bass return to the same coastal locations each year after spawning.

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