UK bass fishos register a win but fight is far from over

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The European sea bass is a popular sport fish which looks good, pulls hard but sadly is under threat from commercial over fishing.
The European sea bass is a popular sport fish which looks good, pulls hard but sadly is under threat from commercial over fishing.

RECREATIONAL and Commercial fishing organisations continue to be at loggerheads over new measures introduced at the European Union Agriculture and Fisheries Council to protect threatened stocks of sea bass.

This fine sporting predator – which can reach 10kg – is popular with anglers but has increasingly become a highly valued eating fish thanks to its promotion by TV chefs in recent years. Unfortunately commercial over fishing has pushed Northern European bass stocks to the brink prompting calls from scientists for a total cessation of all forms of bass harvesting to allow stocks to rebuild.

At the December Council meeting in Brussels, EU fisheries ministers came up with a deal that recognised that targeted netting for threatened bass stocks is no longer an acceptable form of fishing. The proposals, originally from the EU Commission, calling for an end to netting for bass followed several years of hard lobbying by the UK's peak body, the Angling Trust, and had the whole-hearted support of all affected European recreational fishing organisations. Ministers agreed to restrict bass fishing to commercial hook and line and recreational angling only, except for “unavoidable by-catch allowances”.

The rules governing recreational fishing for bass remained the same as 2016 at one fish a day per angler for the latter half of the year. This was down from a three fish bag limit in 2015.

Commercial trawlers and seine netters are to be allowed a 3% bass by-catch to avoid unnecessary discards and fixed gill nets are to be restricted to an unavoidable by-catch allowance of 250kg a month. Currently they have a monthly vessel allocation of 1,300kg which they have now lost altogether.

These moves followed a recent fisheries debate in the House of Commons where a number of representations were made by MPs in favour of the Commission's proposals to help rebuild bass stocks in the wake of a damning stock assessment for 2017. In the lead up to the crucial European Council meeting there was a strong campaign mounted by the Angling Trust, Bass Anglers' Sportfishing Society and other marine conservation organisations, which saw over 11,000 people signing a national Save Our Sea Bass petition.

Now the commercial sector are crying foul and demanding the introduction of an “appeals process” for their members and calling the conservation measures, which were based on advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), an example of “moral panic” and a response to “an over-exercised recreational angling sector”.

Recreational fishing representatives have dismissed the protestations of the commercials, pointing out that without healthy bass stocks there can be no bass fishery. They have made it clear that anglers were prepared to play their part in the conservation program, even though they have only ever been responsible for around 10 per cent of all bass mortality, and that the commercial sector needed to do the same.

There remains, however, a widespread suspicion that many commercial fisherman will attempt to use the “unavoidable by-catch” provision to illegally target bass shoals in the coming spring and summer months and there have been calls for tougher enforcement of the new rules.

Angling organisations have also forced the UK and Welsh Governments to publicly correct the misleading statements they put out following the Brussels meeting which appeared to claim that an actual netting allocation had been agreed for bass. In fact, the recent publication of Article 9 of the TAC and Quota regulations for 2017 by the European Commission made it clear that targeted bass netting is actually illegal.

In the last few days both governments have conceded the point and clarifications have been issued accepting that the only permissible netting for bass is in the form of “unavoidable by-catch”.

The Angling Trust has welcomed the clarification and released the following statement:

"The public statements from both the UK and the Welsh Governments were simply incorrect and frankly irresponsible. There is now no provision for selective bass netting whatsoever and we understand the Marine Management Organisation are already looking to draw up enforcement protocols to clamp down on attempts by the commercials to deliberately target bass with gill nets. There was a real danger that misleading guidance from both governments would have been used as an excuse to see the deliberate targeting of threatened bass stocks to the detriment of both the fishery and to the thousands of anglers who fish responsibly and sustainably."

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