Who the Cod do you believe?

Posted by Philip MacMullen, Head of Environment on 11 June 2012

On the same day I read, 'Norway, Iceland cod stocks booming', 'Cod will vanish in 10 years', 'EU: fish stocks improving', and 'EU...could decide whether species go on hurtling towards extinction'.

Whilst I could subscribe to much of the medicine prescribed in the Sunday Times 'rescue agenda' I fear that much of the diagnosis is based upon a rather muddled interpretation of the source material; hence the contrasting headlines with other publications.

One very important principle is to look at trends over time rather than cherry pick averages or single year 'snapshots'. Another is to acknowledge that just as 'The last decade has seen a relentless succession of reports suggesting stocks of wild fish are in catastrophic decline'; it's also true to say that more scientifically-based reports have shown a series of success stories in better management and stable and rebuilding stocks. We do have problems, but we also have plenty of very effective solutions. The process of transition is usually political but the fishing industry also has a role to play.

Where does this take us? Well the Commission's own report (COM (2012) 278 final) manages to confuse 'overfishing' and overfished (they are quite different things) but even so the 10 year average of stocks overfished is 79% whereas the trend is strongly and consistently downwards and the level is currently 47%.

But, for whatever reasons, we don't have the data to assess the status of around 65% or our 'managed' NE Atlantic stocks and that, extraordinarily, is on a rising trend! As we don't have the resources to increase 'scientific' assessment, this represents a great opportunity for fishermen to contribute data on the commercial and non-commercial catches that they take.

The target of achieving 'maximum sustainable yield' by 2015 was caveated by the UN declaration with 'where possible'. This recognises that the marine environment is complex, often unpredictable and fish don't always behave themselves! Let's keep the date in mind but be realistic and accept that the direction of travel is more important than a hard target.

Likewise the strategy for banning discards: the hard targets for groups of species over the next few years also needs to recognise that there are some fisheries that will require more patient application of technology and psychology over a longer timeframe. That's not a cop-out, it's a recognition of one of the CFP's current failings; prescriptive and centralised management. More sensitive local measures should be the preferred option.

Finally, all the available evidence from areas about to be designated as conservation zones suggests that, even where levels of static gear fishing are high, those areas enjoy 'good conservation status' and 'full ecosystem function'. The case may be made for some 'no-take zones' but if management measures are based upon evidence rather than assertion then these are likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

Philip MacMullen, Head of Environment