It wasn't so long ago that stocks of North Sea cod were at historically low levels. As recently as 2006, stocks had fallen to just 44,000 tonnes, dropping dramatically from 200-300,000 tonnes in the 1960s and early 1970s. However, the welcome announcement last month from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that North Sea cod is now fully certified as sustainable heralds a new era, showing the power of collaboration between the fishing industry, government and scientific research. Fishermen, who have previously been criticised for their part in depleting stocks, should be immensely proud of their vital role in helping recover stocks to a level which sees North Sea cod reach the gold standard of full MSC certification.
So what caused this great depletion in stocks and what brought about its remarkable recovery?
During the 70s and 80s, the expansion of European fisheries resulted in high fishing pressure on stocks of cod, haddock, whiting and saithe caught in the North Sea. This resulted in over exploitation of these stocks beyond a sustainable level for most of the period from the 1970s until the 2000s. As a result, these stocks - most notably cod - had been either at risk of falling outside, or had already fallen outside, safe biological limits. The need to curb this high fishing pressure and bring these stocks back to a level where they could be sustainably harvested was recognised by the European Union and Norway under their agreement to manage these stocks. This agreement would come to be known as the 'Cod Recovery Plan'.
The North Sea white fish stocks are caught in a mixed fishery, meaning a mixture of stocks of various fish species are caught together. Productivity can vary between stocks, so simply introducing restrictive catch limits on depleted stocks would not always result in reduced fishing pressure on these species. Fishermen would continue to fish for the more productive stocks, and simply discard the fish stocks for which they did not have available quota. So the EU cod management plans, including the recovery plan introduced in 2004 and the long term management plan in 2008, had to include measures to control and reduce fishing effort, as well as introducing restrictions on catches of cod and other stocks.
Control and reduction of fishing effort (through days at sea restrictions on individual boats), were an important part of the management plans. National governments were able to devise cod avoidance schemes in which fishers were incentivized to avoid cod through increased days at sea allowances. Marine Scotland created a unique co-management group, which included managers, scientists, NGOs and the catching sector and together agreed the closure of large areas to protect the spawning females. In addition, after extensive selectivity trials the fishermen were able to pursue their traditional mixed fishery with up to 60% less cod in the catch.
This unique relationship continues to keep Scotland at the forefront of industry- government cooperation providing a platform for continued collective approaches. The UK Marine Management Organisation (MMO) also devised schemes to avoid concentrations of cod by monitoring catches in real time and closing areas which contained high concentrations of the species. The UK also devised the trial 'catch quota' scheme in which catches are monitored using cameras onboard fishing vessels, with fishermen having to land all the cod they catch, and avoid catching cod when the catch limits are reached, thus incentivising selective fishing. This has evolved into the UK MMO's 'Fully Documented Fisheries' scheme in which cameras are used to monitor fishing vessels' catches routinely.
Whilst it is difficult to assess the relative importance of these various schemes on cod recovery, there has clearly been a positive effect on the cod and other whitefish populations in the North Sea, resulting in reduced fishing mortality and recovery of the spawning stock. And this is even more remarkable for having taken place in a natural environment which is not considered conducive to cod recovery; environmental change in the plankton, as tracked by scientists over five decades, is believed to affect food supplies and survival of cod larvae, thereby reducing recruitment of young cod into the stock, regardless of fishing activity.
So what is the future of the North Sea fishery?
The MSC's certification of North Sea cod is the culmination of a remarkable turnaround but the story does not end there.
Britain's decision to leave the EU and to withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention (which currently allows foreign vessels to fish within six and 12 nautical miles of UK coastline) means the future is unclear, at this point, how we intend to manage our seas in the future. What is clear is that when industry, science and government work together, all of us benefit; the fishermen that catch the fish, the sustainability of stocks, those that sell and trade the fish, and the consumer.
It is a cause for great celebration that all of us can once more enjoy North Sea cod with a clear conscience so enjoy your fish and chips tonight!