WILL we ever get our fisheries management better than half right?
I guess it was as a result of being asked to write the Keep Australian Fishing report that I continue to keep a weather eye on developments in fisheries management around the globe. Well perhaps "globe" is something of an exaggeration. Given that I speak and read only two languages - English and Australian - perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my interests tend to centre on NZ, Oz, USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK.
There are lessons to be learned from the huge array of fisheries in all these countries but I'm left with the impression that despite having the advantages of all the modern technologies and survey results at our disposal we seem incapable of ever getting things much better than half right. And quite frankly, half right is simply not good enough in a world where already 80 per cent of the seas are either fully exploited or overfished.
Take the plight of the European sea bass (Dicentrarchus Labrax) - a truly wonderful sportfish that is highly prized by anglers in the UK, Ireland and Northern Europe. Unfortunately for the poor old Labrax it is has also become increasingly prized as a fashionable restaurant dish and the levels of commercial exploitation have now triggered a crisis in the fishery.
Save the sea bass
Successive Fisheries Ministers from both sides of politics in Britain have been well aware of the increasingly parlous state of bass numbers and the long overdue need for the introduction of measures to prevent a catastrophic stock collapse. Sadly, it now seems that this collapse could be about to happen. The results from the recent Solent bass survey in the English Channel confirm that there have been five poor year classes in a row (2008 – 2012) which offers a bleak prospect for the future.
The magnificent European sea bass - sadly a species in deep trouble.
With the exception of Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, the minister who tried unsuccessfully to raise the ridiculously inadequate bass minimum landing size (mls), and the Conservative’s Richard Benyon, who instigated the current mls review, other ministers have been reluctant to either heed the warnings or follow scientific advice. This is partly because the commercial sector consistently sets its face against any restrictions on their activities and they are effective lobbyists to which politicians have become accustomed to listening.
Is all this beginning to sound familiar to some of the depressing narratives I read from Australia?
The reason the sea bass is now in this unhappy place is because for the last 10 years our politicians have been ignoring the evidence from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) and their own scientists and listening to the loudest and most self-interested voices. The scientific advice from ICES in 2013 for a 36 per cent cut in total catches was not acted upon and now the latest recommendation is for an 80 per cent cut in catches of bass across the EU in 2015.
Increasing commercial fishing effort and successive years of recruitment failure are cumulatively driving bass stocks towards a precipice. Unless action is taken immediately to protect the remaining stock a total moratorium on bass fishing in Europe will soon be the only option available to protect and restore this important fishery.
A collapse in bass stocks or a total moratorium on all forms of bass fishing would be disastrous for recreational sea angling which, according to Our Government's own Sea Angling 2012 report shows there are 884,000 sea anglers in England who directly pump £1.23 billion p.a. into the economy and upon which 10,400 full time jobs are dependent. If induced and indirect impacts are taken into account these figures soar to £2.1 billion and 23,600 jobs. The Valued Added Tax (VAT) alone which is collected from sea anglers dwarfs the entire value of all commercial fish landings in England.
A perfect Irish bass beach at dawn - in Ireland bass are protected as a recreational only species.
In purely economic terms, we would be better off if bass were retained as a line caught species only with the bulk of the market demand met by farmed fish. This would immediately revive the UK fishery for both the inshore under ten metre commercial fleet, who would be in position to provide a premium product caught in a sustainable way, and the recreational sector - the majority of whom practice catch and release or fish to voluntary bag limits.
I'm currently in the middle of a massive campaign to try and secure a sustainable future for our bass fishery the details of which you can read here: http://www.anglingtrust.net/news.asp?section=29§ionTitle=Angling+Trust+News&itemid=2359
But here's a thing. In the UK we have hardly any size limits, the current one for bass at 36cms is set well below the minimum spawning size (42cms) and is therefore worse than useless. We have no recreational bag limits and hardly any spatial closures to protect spawning grounds. We do have a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) with Europe which imposes quotas on the commercial catch but this has been much discredited for consistently ignoring scientific advice in favour of pandering to political and commercial pressures to carry on netting.
The sea bass is the most popular marine fish to be targeted by UK anglers who are campaigning hard for proper conservation policies.
Ringing any bells Down Under?
In making the case for a properly managed bass fishery we like to cite the example of the North American striped bass fishery which is tightly managed as a shared resource between the commercial and the recreational sectors.
The great American striped bass recovery
“The most successful restoration of a fin fish stock in the history of North America”, announced the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) when reporting on the state of striped bass stocks.
In terms of economic scale, the revival of the American striped bass fishery is certainly a success story. It hit rock bottom in the 10 North Eastern states in 1982, with angling spend down to $85m p.a. A very aggressive stock management and recovery programme then took effect. By 1996 when the recovery was complete, angling spend had risen to $560m p.a. and by 2003 to $2.4bn in the 10 states, worth in total $6.6bn to those economies when all the multipliers are added in.
Sounds good doesn't it? But the other week I was sent this piece from the Boston Globe which indicates that even this fishery is facing strife and an unwillingness from the pros to face facts and make further necessary changes.
"It is the start of Massachusetts’ commercial striped bass season, and each fisherman who has traveled here — whether from across town or from Canada — is anxious to get a line in the water. Chatham is at the epi-centre of the mayhem because schools of stripers congregate off its coast, the town’s launches are closest to them, and 60 percent of the one million pounds of Massachusetts striped bass that go to market are caught there each year. The fishery generates approximately $23 million in total economic activity.
But there is a problem.
Striped bass are the most prized sport fish on the Atlantic seaboard, and from May through November hundreds of thousands of anglers come to fish for them from Massachusetts’ beaches and rivers and jetties putting over $1 billion into local economies from Newburyport to New Bedford, Provincetown to Edgartown. Or at least they used to.
Opinions differ as to why, but by every measure the population of striped bass is in sharp decline. In just five years between 2006 and 2011 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the recreational catch of striped bass in Massachusetts plummeted by 85 percent! As a result, fishermen and their money are staying away yet all appeals to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for conservation have run straight into a political wall.
Last year, in the face of a dire outlook for the future of striped bass, a coastwide reduction in catch limits was proposed by Massachusetts’ own director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, yet the two political appointees with whom he serves — both of whom have ties to the commercial fishing industry — opposed their own director, forcing to him to vote against his own measure.
Similarly, a petition signed by more than 1,000 citizens proposing a 50 percent reduction in the recreational and commercial striped bass harvest was presented to the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Council. The nine-member council — eight of whom have direct ties to the commercial fishing industry — "denied the petition".
Hopefully you are beginning to see a pattern here?!
NSW Bag and Size Limits Review
Well let's start with the half right bit in the Lucky Country. At least you've got bag and size limits and there's a decent network of recreational fishing havens in New South Wales. In Australia as a whole the dreadful super trawlers have been kept out and you do have a comprehensive network of marine reserves. The trouble is you have fisheries management authorities with a brief to maintain the dollar value of the commercial catch and the current federal government looks set to allow the super trawlers back in.
In contrast to more enlightened regimes, your marine parks operate on an all or nothing principle where recreational fishing is treated as equally exploitative as commercial trawling, which is just plain daft. Furthermore, there are massive disparities between the quality of state fishery management policies with NT and WA leading the way in good practice and New South Wales very much bringing up the rear.
Given the closeness of NSW Fisheries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson to the commercial sector I was not among those who had high hopes for the recently announced Bag and Size limit review in the state. The eventual results were decidedly underwhelming as my friend and fellow Fisho writer John Newbery wrote:
"It's a bit of a fizzer of an outcome from a long review of bag and size limits that had some fishos fearful and some wildly optimistic. The fearful predicted wholesale bag limit reductions and size limit increases. The optimistic hoped that Fisheries might be brave enough to link minimum size limits to breeding maturity for all popular species, introduce a lot more slot limits to protect big breeding fish and maybe make a few iconic species catch & release only".
The bag limits for luderick, flathead, Trevally, bream, tarwhine and tailor went down to 10 fish a day - still a lot in my view but at least a step in the right direction. But what about the species in real trouble in the state, in particular, the Murray cod, snapper, kingfish and jewies?
Well the minister predictably didn't want to upset the pros and whilst the size limit went up for jewies so did the permissible by-catch meaning that they are targeting as many juvenile jewies as they ever were.
Snapper and kingfish still have a size limit well under their minimum spawning lengths which is not only pointless, it is plain stupid. Once again the commercials opposed putting up minimum sizes even though this could lead to an improved yield in the fishery. And I'm told that the consultation showed that, despite there being problems in the fishery, a majority of anglers still wanted to keep their bag limits of 5 for kings and 10 for snapper. Very disappointing and and something they will regret in my view.
Granted the right thing was done by the Murray cod, but there's no commercial fishery for these species so this was an easy decision to take. In fact I hear that the Murray cod fishery in NSW is going reasonably well, after some pretty bad times, and that this is due to increased size limits and improved angling practices.
The review was the opportunity to fix these problems but it was an opportunity lost. Consequently, anglers from NSW will hardly ever catch sizeable jewies anywhere near a commercial fishery and many will continue to fly across the ditch to New Zealand in order to catch trophy sized kingies and snapper that should be available to them on their doorsteps. Crazy or what?
We can be better than this
Of course it doesn't have to be like this. We know fine well of our past mistakes, the collapse of the cod stocks on the Grand Banks in Newfoundland, the demise of the New Zealand orange roughy, the loss of the tuna and herring in the North Sea, and so on and so on. We know how to manage our fisheries sustainably, how to share the resource between recreational and commercial sectors in a way that can put food on our plates and yet still deliver a sustainable yield that maximises economic and social benefit. We have aquaculture, we can stop pollution, we can deliver improved habitat, we can protect spawning grounds, we can outlaw unsustainable fishing methods but the question remains - do we really want to?
Are we content to be ruled by politicians who put political expediency before sound science and good practice, who bend to the bleatings of the short term profiteers who are happy to continue the wholly destructive race to catch the last fish in the sea?
Despite all the evidence to the contrary I still travel in hope, for I believe that we can be better than this and that one day we will really want to be.