Bristol Channel Bass Fishery Being Decimated By A Few

The North Devon Fishermen’s Association state the Welsh claims of the bass fishery alleged over exploitation by North Devon trawlers, were exaggerated bordering on political hysteria. Commercial fishermen and anglers in South Wales have joined forces to save inshore bass stocks from alleged over-exploitation by large North Devon trawlers.

When, however, fishermen openly criticise the activities of a few in their industry, who are affecting the livelihoods of the majority along the South Wales coast and from Somerset to Cornwall then there must be substance to their claims.

Up until five to six years ago it appeared that the Bristol bass fishery was being fished sustainably but since then catches on both sides of the channel have declined and this coincides with increasing bass fishing activity by the NDFA bass trawlers.

Charter boats, commercial bass rod & linesmen and recreational sea anglers have all experienced being followed and targeted by these trawlers whilst fishing on the banks & gullies. The result is many of these bass marks have had their bass populations fished out and the decimation has forced many charter boats skippers in particular out of business.

Bass are slow growing and typical young bass will spend four to five years in bass nursery areas some of which are protected by legislation, and it is not until those fish leave the nursery areas and spread around the coast and join the fishery to replace those being taken as adults.

Parts of the Bristol Channel are natural biological nursery areas for several fish species but only adjoining estuaries have designated nursery area protection. The Trevose Head grounds are an acknowledged breeding area for many species including bass but the juvenile bass are generally found in shallower waters, where large fish also come to feed in summer. Tagging has clearly shown the movement of larger bass from the inshore areas to the breeding grounds outside of the six-mile limit during the winter spawning period.

Mr Butterworth, the Chief executive of the NDFA states he would welcome evidence that they are destroying hundreds of juvenile bass, yet by his own admission to the then Fisheries Minister Jonathon Shaw on Monday 1st October 2007 in London at a joint meeting between the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations and the Bass Angler’s Sportfishing Society, and   Recreational Anglers that his fishery had a discard problem. He quoted “As up to 65% of the catch on some occasions” in the Bristol Bass fishery and this was the reason why he opposed an increase in the bass minimum landing size (Which would ultimately have provided  increase in yield of bass to the majority of stakeholders in the fishery).

The total damage caused to local bass stocks by this wasteful killing of juveniles may never be known. To inflame the situation further NDFA are seeking Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation to try to demonstrate to the public they are fishing sustainably in the Bristol Channel trawl-caught bass fishery, which clearly they are not. Belatedly, and cynically, some boats in the NDFA have been trailing been trailing a square mesh cod end to reduce the discards and thereby increase their chances of obtaining accreditation over the small boats that they are out-competing is not only ludicrous, but a sad reflection on fisheries management.

Although the trawlers engaged in this fishery have gained at the expense and to the detriment of the under 10 metre inshore fleet, charter boats, commercial rod & liners and recreational anglers, the real losers are the bass stocks themselves, which will take years to recover if at all.  This is a dirty fishery, which should not be allowed to continue and parts of the Bristol Channel where juvenile bass predominate, should be given bass nursery area status and trawling for bass in these areas banned before the fishery collapses all together.

John LeBalleur.     Chairman of the Bass Restoration Team.