The UK fisheries audit released today by the largest international advocacy organisation dedicated solely to ocean conservation, Oceana, paints a disturbing picture of the state of UK fish stocks. Only 36% of the 104 audited stocks were known to be healthy in terms of stock size and only 38% sustainably exploited. Oceana calls on the UK government to stop overfishing and lead the way in sustainable fisheries by setting catch limits in line with science.
Of the top 10 most economically important fish stocks for the UK, 6 are overfished or their stock biomass is at a critical level: North Sea cod, North Sea herring, Southern North Sea crab, Eastern English Channel scallops, North East Atlantic blue whiting and North Sea whiting. Further, there is insufficient data to define reference points for North Sea anglerfish. Therefore, only 3 of the top 10 stocks upon which the UK fishing industry relies are both healthy and sustainably exploited: North East Atlantic mackerel, North Sea haddock and West of Scotland Nephrops. This is due to catch limits having been set at or below the recommended sustainable limits for preceding years, demonstrating the positive impact to be gained by following scientific advice.
“It is shocking to find that 6 out of 10 of the UK’s most important fish stocks are overfished or in a critical situation. This report provides clear evidence that setting catch limits higher than those recommended by scientists is causing stocks of some of the UK’s best-loved fish, like cod, to rapidly decline. Those currently taking part in negotiating catch limits for 2021 must set them in line with scientific advice and not push for continued overfishing”, said Melissa Moore, Oceana’s head of UK policy.“There is an opportunity and a responsibility for the UK to lead the way in achieving sustainable fisheries. Ensuring catches of shared stocks are fully aligned with scientific advice must be an absolute priority”, added Moore.
Of particular concern is cod, an iconic species in the UK, which has been significantly overfished over past years, primarily as a result of political decisions. Unsustainable fishing pressure, higher than that scientifically advised, has led to a series of cod stock declines and collapses, to the extent that currently none of the UK cod stocks can be considered as healthy and sustainably exploited.
The audit provides an evidence-based snapshot of the status of UK fish stocks and sets a benchmark for the state of these fisheries following the UK’s departure from the EU. It also shines a light on the devastating impact of the politically-motivated setting of catch limits higher than recommended by scientists. This evidence is particularly relevant and should inform the EU-UK negotiations on 2021 catch limits (Total Allowable Catches, or TACs) for shared fish stocks which have started this week. Oceana is urging the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and all involved in the negotiations to follow the best available science when setting catch limits. Failing to do so will result in the fishing industry itself, as well as coastal communities and marine life, suffering in the long run.
Key facts from Oceana’s UK fisheries audit
- Negotiations for North East Atlantic TACs cover over 50 commercial species distributed among 200 different stocks.
- The majority of fish landed in the UK from the North East Atlantic in 2019 (618,000 t, valued at £979 million) came from UK waters (81% by live weight and 87% by value). The second most important waters for the UK fleet were those of the EU, accounting for an additional 15% of landings (8% by value).
- Of the 104 stocks audited 35.6% were healthy in terms of stock size, whereas 20.2% were in a critical condition. Data limitations mean the status of the remaining 44.2% cannot be determined, leaving them at greater risk of unsuitable management decisions.
- Of the 104 audited stocks 37.5% were sustainably exploited prior to the UK leaving the EU, while 28.8% were being overfished and the exploitation status of another 33.6% cannot be assessed against Maximum Sustainable Yield reference points to guide management decisions.
- About 70-90% of the landings by volume of the ‘top ten’ fish stocks come from Scottish vessels.
- Now that the UK has left the EU, DEFRA will lead TAC negotiations for fish stocks shared with third parties (e.g. the EU or Norway).
- The new UK Fisheries Act is the main framework regulation for the devolved management of the UK’s fish and shellfish resources and fisheries.
- The UK is a net importer of seafood and the majority of UK catch is sold overseas, notably to markets within the EU (>720,000 t imported and >450,000 t exported).
Background and context:
The UK´s decision to leave the EU and to regain the control of its waters has enormous consequences for the management of UK fisheries.
Within the last decade, the overfishing rate for fish populations in European Atlantic waters has dropped from roughly 66% to 38% due to the strong EU fisheries regulatory framework (including the Common Fisheries Policy). It is essential that this trend continues and accelerates so that overfishing finally becomes a thing of the past and so that marine ecosystems are given the chance to rebound and build resilience to large-scale threats such as climate change.
Oceana’s UK fisheries audit collates and presents the range of biological and socio-economic evidence that should underpin management decisions, like the setting of TACs or the proposal of fisheries management plans.
Oceana advocates for TAC limits in line with scientific advice and set at or below Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) fishing rates – a scientifically determined number for the maximum fish catch that will allow fish populations to recover and reproduce.
To achieve sustainable fisheries and healthy marine ecosystems, it is vital that the UK government, in its bid to become a world leader in fisheries management, uphold the vision of ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas’ set out in the UK’s Marine Strategy.