Fisheries ministers have been condemned after a rapid rise in catches of sea bass despite warnings the stock is at risk of collapse.
Scientists warned landings needed to be slashed by 80 per cent amid deepening concerns about the health of the stock but in the last year UK commercial catches rose by more than 30 per cent.
UK commercial fishermen caught 772 tonnes of sea bass in 2013 but increased their landings last year to 1,004 tonnes last year, according to recent figures from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). Fishermen in small boats caught 889 tonnes.
The increase has prompted condemnation of ministers and their fisheries officials for failing to introduce regulations tough enough to protect the species.
Emergency measures to curb large trawlers targeting spawning bass were imposed by the European Commission earlier this year but almost 90 per cent of the catch in the UK is taken by small boats less than 10 metres long.
The Commission has been trying to broker a deal between the UK, France and other bass fishing nations but have been frustrated by intransigence. Officials are said to be “at the end of their tether”
as they try to identify measures that will satisfy all sides, including recreational anglers who are estimated to take 1,500 tonnes of the total European catch of at least 5,600 tonnes.
Jerry Percy, chief executive of the Low Impact Fishers of Europe, defended the role of small scale fishers and said it was fisheries managers who were responsible for the rise.
“Fishermen fish to the regulations,” he said. “Until such time as the government changes the regulations fishermen will go out and catch.
They rely upon fishery managers to manage and to advise them how much they can catch.”
He accepted that some small boats had increasingly targeted bass over the last year but was insistent it was the larger pair trawlers, mostly French, that had caused the real damage to the stock, which is found primarily in the Channel, Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and southern North Sea.
Recreational fisherman Malcolm Gilbert, conservation officer for the Cornish Federation of Sea Anglers and an ambassador for the Angling Trust, was appalled at the increase in UK catches and blamed ministers.
“Ministers are the ultimate power,” he said. “We’ve increased landings by 30 per cent which I think is inexcusable and begs the question, is Defra or the system broken? Something isn’t fit for purpose.”
A report commissioned by the Blue Marine Foundation concluded last year that bass fishing by anglers creates three times the number of jobs as commercial fishing, with a lower environmental impact than any commercial fishing method other than hook and line. Blue recognised, however, that commercial netting provides a vital economic lifeline for small scale fishers.
Charles Clover, Chairman of BLUE, said: “It is abundantly clear from these new figures that the problem with the bass is not just the French pair trawl fishery, now stopped, but a general lack of management. We need a scientifically based management plan with clearly understood limits on all fishing methods that will achieve the reductions in landings that scientists are calling for.”
Scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea
(ICES) first issued warnings about sea bass numbers three years ago.
In July last year they urged an 80 per cent cut to reduce total landings, including commercial and recreational, to just 1,155 tonnes.
Commercial catches for Europe in 2013 totalled 4,123 tonnes.
At the European Commission there is increasing frustration at the lack of progress. Firm proposals beyond the ban on pair trawling have yet to be put forward. One insider described the Commission as being “at the end of their tether” because of the unwillingness of member states to make concessions.
Officials have made it clear to member states including the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands which all have access to sea bass stocks, that while further restrictions on fishing will be painful for the industry it will be nothing compared to the pain if the stock collapses.
Fisheries Minister George Eustice said it was the UK’s demand for action which led to the Commission’s emergency measure being put in place earlier this year and he has separately ordered a review of the UK’s sea bass regulations.
He said: “We are now working with other Member States to agree a wider package of measures, paving the way for the stock to recover and become sustainable.”