Sea bass numbers have crashed to such dangerously low levels that scientists are calling for commercial and recreational fishing to be halted for at least a year.
The latest scientific advice on the state of the sea bass population in UK and north European waters underlines the “desperate state” the sea bass population is in, conservationists have warned.
Heavy restrictions have already been placed in the last 18 months on the quantities that can be caught but scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) are now calling for a complete moratorium on landing bass to be introduced in 2017.
“There should be zero catch (commercial and recreational) in 2017,” ICES said in its latest official guidance, issued in June.
However, there are doubts ministers would be willing to ban all bass fishing, and with the UK heading for the European Union’s exit door, the likelihood of international deals on catch levels being reached to restore sea bass numbers quickly has been severely diminished.
Many of the restrictions on bass catches in 2015 and 2016 – which include the closure of some fisheries – were championed by the UK government and it is thought European counterparts will now be less willing to listen.
“What we have done is blow a raspberry at the international community,” said environmental law specialist Tom Appleby. “We will be going into a climate of hostility, though this could change as time goes on.”
Clare Brook, chief executive of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: “We are desperately worried about the sea bass population and are seeking ways to protect it from further decline.
“We would urge ministers on both sides of the English Channel to put aside the differences that may be felt after the referendum and to act in the best interests of the fish by putting in place measures that support the return of sea bass.”
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said the ICES advice underlined “the desperate situation this restaurant and recreational angling favourite is in”.
Samuel Stone, of the MCS, said: “The fishing industry has fought hard to play down the seriousness of the situation. In 2014, scientists recommended an 80 per cent reduction in bass catches, and whilst large reductions have been made, the resulting reductions have been more like 50 per cent.
“And even then there is huge uncertainty in the actual catch figures for bass as it’s known to be illegally caught and sold in the UK and there is a large recreational catch.”
MCS has warned that even if there are zero catches in 2017, a likelihood it described as “impossible” the species would still be close to or below “critical levels”.
The situation for bass is further complicated by the uncertainty surrounding what exactly the UK can hope for in terms of rights and agreements with European nations once it has withdrawn from the Common Fisheries Policy.
Different fishing interests also have differences in their expectations, and recreational and commercial fishermen each feel they have already taken on a greater burden than the other.
Anglers have warned that the situation for sea bass in UK waters is so dire that only a ban on catching them with nets will be enough to save them from complete collapse.
In a statement they admitted they have “no expectation” that EU ministers will put the ICES advice into action and said: “No scientifically advised moratorium has ever been introduced by the EU Council in the history of the CFP.”
But Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO), urged a more cautious approach, saying a “knee jerk reaction” would be wrong.
He described the ICES call for all landings to be halted in 2017 as “very extreme”. He said it was based on the premise that bass catches should be at Maximum Sustainable Yield, a measure of sustainability, by the end of next year.
“The one thing that’s clear about bass is it’s going to take a number of years to rebuild the biomass,” he said . “What we need is a longer term management plan – as opposed to a knee jerk reaction.