Record numbers of whelks are coming to a chewy end

May 29, 2019

Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) today publishes its study calling for national management of the common whelk – a species at risk of localised collapse.

Whelks are one of 107 non-quota species landed in the UK.  These species are not subject to EU total allowable catch under the Common Fisheries Policy and have very little national management.

The study, commissioned by BLUE and undertaken by MRAG, demonstrates that whelks are being caught before they have had the opportunity to reproduce even once.

Whelks mature at different sizes in different localised areas in the UK.  The current EU-wide minimum landing size for whelks is 45mm.  In England, whelks mature between 45mm and 78mm, depending on where in the country they are found.

The study also found that there is very little mixing between regional whelk sub-populations, making these stocks highly vulnerable to localised overfishing and extinction.

BLUE is calling for national agreement on localised minimum landing sizes in order to avoid overfishing.  Additional management recommendations made in the report include: the prevention of active gear-types in whelk fishing; improved reporting and data collection to better define sub-populations and their regional boundaries; and the implementation of a procedure to monitor and control fishing effort taking place in these different regions.

Whelk fishing has increased throughout England over the past few years.  UK whelk landings increased from 8,400 to 22,700 tons between 2003 and 2016 and were valued at over £22.9 million in 2016.

Between 2010 and 2013, whelk landings increased six-fold.  The following year they plateaued, despite a 41 per cent increase in the number of vessels landing whelks.

Increasing demand for whelks, particularly from overseas markets such as Korea, Taiwan and Singapore has been a significant driver of the increased landings in recent years.  This increasing demand has seen the value of whelks increase from approximately £500 per ton in 2005 to £1,200 per ton in 2018.

Whelk fishing has become a popular “displacement fishery” as vessels move away from other, more highly regulated fish stocks to less regulated species like whelks and cuttlefish.  Whelks also provide a seasonal alternative for fishermen who predominantly target crab and lobster.

Charles Clover, Executive Director of BLUE, said: “The UK government needs to do more to ensure that non-quota species like whelks are managed sustainably and not overlooked.  More and more, we are seeing UK fishermen move away from highly regulated fish stocks towards those that have little or no national regulations protecting them.  Our report shows that strong national management is needed to protect localised whelk stocks, some of which are already at risk of collapse.  If we leave the EU the public will expect the government to assess our commercially exploited species systematically and to manage them proactively, as, for example, does Iceland, an independent coastal state. ”

Whelk fisheries provide important income to coastal communities with some ports, particularly in the south coast of England, being highly dependent on their continued productivity.

Given that the size at the point of sexual maturity of the species is highly variable throughout much of its range, some inshore fisheries and conservation authorities (IFCAs) have taken steps to address the problem themselves by increasing the minimum landings size of whelks through regional bylaws to reduce localised depleted stocks.

Tim Dapling, Chief Officer of the Sussex IFCA, said: “The Association of IFCAs supports any national measures that help to ensure the viability of whelk populations and the fisheries they maintain.  The reliance of many inshore fishers on non-quota shellfish species including whelk and cuttlefish on the south coast of England, increasingly requires the implementation of a clear national strategy for sustainable shellfish management outside IFCA districts.”

Andrew Brown, Director of Sustainability and Public Affairs, Macduff Shellfish, one of the UK’s largest whelk merchants, said: “We commend Blue Marine Foundation for commissioning this important report on common whelk.   The conclusions of the report will be helpful for managers and industry as they continue to progress the local management of whelk stocks.   The adoption of biologically based and regionally appropriate minimum sizes can be an important tool to support the progress currently being made on local management measures.   It is critical that fishermen be engaged in discussions and decisions around management of local stocks to ensure buy-in and maintain progress on advancing management of this important stock.”

Please click here to read the full report.