The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is in despair that European fisheries ministers agreed overnight to continue to ignore scientific advice on fish stocks and settle for a series of watered down compromises designed to appease the short-term interests of the fishing industry. In particular, despite scientists from the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) warning for the fifth year running that the North Sea cod fishery needed to be closed if it was to have any chance of recovery, an already inadequate EU proposal for a 25 % cut in catches was haggled down to only 14 %.

“It is astounding that the EU continues to persist with this doomed approach to fisheries management”, said Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart, Fisheries Policy Officer with the Marine Conservation Society. “These marginal adjustments to the quotas for cod around the UK have been going on for at least the last 20 years, but the fish stocks themselves are going down much faster. This is hardly surprising, as the quotas still allow for at least 60% of the fish to be removed each year ��” what chance does that give for recovery?”

Climate change is increasingly projected by the fishing industry as an excuse for the recent decline in cod catches around the UK. While climate is undoubtedly having some effect, the majority of scientists agree that fishing accounts for five times more mortality of cod than any other factor. What’s more, the climate change argument doesn’t fully add up, given that the healthiest cod stock in the UK is off our southwest coast, where the waters are warmest. Furthermore, a scientific study just out today has also shown that cod often prefer warmer waters, even when cooler areas are within reach. Either way, MCS believes that the uncertain affect of climate change on our oceans and fisheries calls for a more cautious approach to management, rather than business as usual.

The news was not all bad, with the favourable status of some other species such as prawns in the Irish Sea and hake off the southwest UK allowing for increases in their quotas.

“The real challenge for the fisheries managers is to maintain these sustainable fisheries while allowing depleted stocks to recover ��” something they have rarely managed to achieve in the past”, continued Dr Beukers-Stewart. “What is needed is a much more creative and proactive approach to improving the selectivity of fishing gear and practices to reduce the bycatch of unwanted or under-fire species such as cod”. MCS believes that the technology is available, with devices such as square mesh and separator panels, rigid grids and escape hatches all known to reduce bycatch, particularly of juvenile fish. “It is high time that these devices became much more widely implemented and that fisheries managers came up with more dynamic approaches to management, such as real time fisheries closures when bycatch in an area reaches critical levels.”

“Interestingly, US President Bush, not a renowned environmentalist, is about to sign a Bill that requires United States fisheries managers to set catch limits in accordance with scientific advice, and mandates that overfishing of depleted stocks ends immediately. Let’s just hope the European Commission takes a leaf from his book when they meet next year to review the, so far inaptly named, Cod Recovery Plan”, continued Dr Beukers-Stewart.