Friday, 11 July 2014

The fishing industry is gradually “fishing down the food chain”

The lead story on the front page of the Western Morning News makes it clear that current fishing practices are unsustainable:

Study raises new fears over fish stocks

By WMNAGreenwood | Posted: July 11, 2014

Decades of overfishing has reduced populations of many of the oceans top predators to a historic low, a ground-breaking new study has revealed.

Scientists at the University of Plymouth have discovered that numbers of sharks, rays, cod, haddock and other species at the top of the food chain have plummeted in the English Channel over the last 90 years as fishing hauls have continued to grow in size – suggesting that the fishing industry is gradually “fishing down the food chain”.

Their findings have prompted experts to call for an end to “destructive” fishing practices and the introduction of sustainability measures in the fishing industry.

The study, conducted in association with the research organisation WorldFish, used catch statistics spanning from 1920 through to 2010 to build a picture of how the composition of landings from the Channel have changed over time.

It found that the proportion of catches made up of species from higher trophic levels – toward the top of the food chain – has declined significantly, while fishermen have increasingly turned to shellfish, squid, octopus and cuttlefish to make up their fishing quotas.

In particular, results showed that quantities of sharks and rays in catches had fallen from 34% of catch in 1920 to 6% in 2010 and amounts of cod, haddock and hake had dropped from 48% to just 4% during this period.

At the same time, the size of fish hauls have grown ever-larger, with the UK and France currently landing around 150,000 tonnes of seabed fish and shellfish per year from the Channel, compared to just 9,000t recorded in 1920 and 51,000t in 1950.

According to researchers, these fishing pressures have resulted in changes to food chains in the Channel occurring at one of the fastest rates yet recorded among heavily fished regions of the world, which poses serious consequences for the area’s ecosystem.

“Fisheries typically remove top predators first and as a result their direct competitors and prey are able to prosper, affecting the overall productivity and ecological stability of the ecosystem,” said Plymouth University’s Carlotta Molfese. “Severe declines in the populations of major predator species have now been reported around the world.”

The Plymouth team stressed that, far from being a modern phenomenon, over-fishing could be traced as far back as the 19th century, but said that geographic expansion into new fishing grounds and improved technology had fuelled a growth in hauls.

These factors could potentially be compounded by damage to the marine environment caused by an increase in dredging and trawling for shellfish, as fishermen seek to counterbalance a lack of finfish. This has raised questions about the sustainability of industry methods.

“All around the UK we are scraping the barrel, destructively dredging the seabed for scallops and prawns as fish have disappeared,” said Professor Jason Hall Spencer of the university’s Marine Institute, “When destructive fishing practices are banned, marine life soon recovers. So we urgently need a network of recovery zones in the English Channel to allow marine life to bounce back.”

Doug Beare from WorldFish added: “Although new and economically viable fisheries have developed for these invertebrate species, concerns have been raised about their long-term sustainability. Solid global and regional governance of these vital resources will ensure that we can produce enough fish for everyone.”

However, the findings have met with criticism from local industry figures, who said that the reality of the fish stocks situation was very different from the image created by the study.

“This report is probably twenty years out of date in its findings. In actual fact the English Channel fish stocks are doing remarkably well,” said Paul Trebilcock, chief executive of The Cornish Fish Producers Organisation. There is an abundance of all types of fish including sharks, rays and other more important commercial species mentioned in the report. Fishermen are already fishing with more sustainable fishing gears, such as bigger mesh sizes, new trawl configurations and acoustic deterrents to avoid unwanted bycatch. The reason landings might appear to be lower on some stocks is most likely to be a function of the regulatory regime and quota system rather than the abundance of fish in the sea.”

Study raises new fears over fish stocks | Western Morning News

The story has been covered by the regional and national press:
Overfishing in the English Channel leaves fisherman scraping the bottom of the barrel | Science Codex

There is now clear need to act on the government's proposals for Marine Conservation Zones:

Professor - Government must act on the scientific evidence

By Western Morning News | Posted: July 11, 2014

Prof. Jason Hall-Spencer, School of Marine Science and Engineering

Last month, the Government’s Environmental Audit Committee cast its oar into the water surrounding the issue of protecting our marine environment – and the lack of decisive action taken by the government thus far.

The committee, led by Labour MP Joan Walley, questioned the Government’s commitment to introducing Marine Conservation Zones after less than a quarter of the 127 sites recommended by independent project groups were designated as such.

Of the 27 that were, deep concerns remain over the adequacy of the enforcement provisions put in place. This is largely due to budget restrictions at Defra affecting the Marine Management Organisation.

Today we’ve published a scientific study of commercial fishing catches over the past 90 years that reveals the true impact that industrial fishing has had upon marine life in the English Channel. There’s been a huge decline in what we call ‘white fish’, those species that live near the sea bed and have delicious flakes of white flesh – cod, ling, hake and haddock.

Man-sized fish like halibut and the so called ‘common skate’ have disappeared completely off the south of England and northern France.

When we examine the footprint of mobile fishing gear, like beam trawlers and scallop dredgers, the reason is screamingly obvious – the seabed off South West England is repeatedly towed over by tonnes of heavy fishing gear; no wonder there are only ‘tiddlers’ left.

The supermarkets of Brixham, Plymouth and Newlyn stock cod and haddock freighted in from Iceland and Norway, where fishing with trawls and dredges is banned in coastal waters because of the damage it does to the spawning areas of fish.

Most of the salmon, bass and bream we eat originate from fish farms because we simply cannot catch enough of those species in UK waters to meet consumer demand.

The ecological balance of our shores has changed dramatically; intense fishing of the English Channel by fleets from all over Europe has removed fish stocks, allowing the cockroaches, rats and mice of the sea to thrive.

Perversely, business is booming for the scallop dredging fleet since scallops have tough shells and thrive in heavily trawled areas – but most of this catch is destined for the export market.

A common misconception, one perpetuated by Whitehall mandarins, is that there are ‘too many fishermen catching too few fish’. The problem is quite the opposite: there are too few fishermen catching too many fish; large vessels manned by a skeleton crew Hoover up vast quantities of sea life, burning fuel that is subsidised by the taxpayer.

I want to see the harbours of the south coast bustling with small fishing vessels catching delicious food in a sustainable manner. To achieve that is to prevent widespread damaging activities. We know from our own research in Lyme Bay in South Devon, and off Lundy in the north, that marine life soon recovers once the use of mobile gear is stopped in inshore waters. If you dive in shallow waters off the Azores or Norway, where the seabed is left alone, the place is teeming with life, with small fish that grow up to support the fishing industry offshore. As Joan Walley concluded: “When a rare species or biodiverse stretch of seabed is destroyed it may be lost forever.”

The scientific evidence is in and the time for the Government to act is now. Setting aside areas where marine life can recover just makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.

Professor - Government must act on the scientific evidence | Western Morning News

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