Government allowing overfishing by ignoring scientific advice, report warns

The Government is allowing overfishing by setting catch limits above scientific advice, according to a new report.

In its analysis of 104 species, Oceana found a third are being overfished and a quarter are at critically low levels.

Campaigners say this is being driven by the Government allowing fishers to catch more than what is recommended by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

The UK relies on 10 stocks landed by British boats but half of these are being overfished, according to Oceana.

These include North East Atlantic mackerel, North East Atlantic blue whiting, North Sea anglerfish, North Sea cod and Eastern English Channel king scallops.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who wrote the foreword to the report, said: “The stark fact is that overfished stocks have one thing in common: they are on course for collapse.

“If that is allowed to happen, the human livelihoods will go with them just as fast as the marine ecosystems they support.

“Our Government needs to step up today to prevent the UK from losing its fish and starving its seas.”

The report, called Taking Stock, found that only 45% of UK fish stocks are being taken sustainably, with less than half of the populations at a healthy size.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive and founder of Oceana, said: “The one thing we know that we can’t do without is sea life itself.

“Those fish populations are important, not just because we need that biodiversity and that thriving ecosystem for all of the resilience that brings in the face of climate change, but also for the coastal communities that depend on a healthy sea.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote the foreword to the report (PA)

“Because a fished-out sea won’t support anyone, from the tip of Scotland to the far west of Cornwall, where I live.

“Overstepping the scientific advice on fisheries will only end in one place. And that’s collapse and disaster.”

ICES advises that some species such as Celtic Sea cod should not be caught at all to allow the stocks to recover.

Mr Tagholm said overfishing is not coming from the smaller UK fisheries – which he said catch only 2%-3% of the total quota – but large companies from a mix of countries.

Some are also dredging the seabed in a practice known as bottom trawling, which uses large nets that indiscriminately scoop up anything in their path.

Other issues such as pollution, development of offshore oil and gas and climate change mean fish stocks are being “sandwiched” in between threats and pushed to their limits, warned Mr Tagholm.

His organisation is calling on the UK Government to ban bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas as well as bring its catch limits in line with the scientific advice from ICES and record more data on the health of different stocks.

Fishing boats
Ministers were warned that ‘time is running out to conserve vulnerable marine life’ (PA)

Dr Annette Broderick, professor of marine conservation at the University of Exeter, said: “Oceana’s Taking Stock report clearly demonstrates the dire state of UK fish stocks.

“These exploited fish populations play an integral role in marine ecosystems, the health of the ocean and the future of the UK’s fishing industry.

“Time is running out to conserve vulnerable marine life. The UK Government must follow scientific guidance and set fishing quotas within the limits of sustainability.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “Our priority when negotiating and setting catch limits is always to make sure that fisheries are managed sustainably, as well as safeguarding valuable fishing opportunities for the UK industry.

“In the summer, we announced a package of reforms that marked a clear departure from the outdated EU Common Fisheries Policy, and which will deliver a profitable fishing industry underpinned by sustainable fish stocks and a healthy marine environment for the future.

“These reforms are underpinned by Fisheries Management Plans – blueprints for how best to manage fish stocks – which have been developed together with the industry and drawing on the best available science.”