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Minister to defy scientists over cod quotas

 

December 16 2013 Lewis Smith

 

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Atlantic cod

Dieter Craasman/Pew

Fisheries minister George Eustice is preparing to defy scientists by demanding higher cod quotas in support of fishermen.

Scientists have recommended cuts of up to 33 per cent in cod catches in UK waters in line with a recovery plan put in place in 2008 but the reductions are contested by fishermen and the government.

Cod numbers have been rising for several years in succession, albeit from a historically low level, and there had been hopes that catch levels could rise despite cuts required by the Cod Management Plan.

But scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which advises European governments on fish stocks, maintain that to allow quotas to rise in 2014 would damage the long term recovery of cod.

As part of the management plan to help cod recover after being heavily overfished, scientists have called for an overall cut in catches around the UK of 15 per cent in 2014. In the North Sea they want cod catches reduced by nine per cent while in the Celtic Sea they want them slashed by 33 per cent. In the West of Scotland and Irish Sea quotas have already been reduced to zero, they are opposed to any increase.

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Mr Eustice, however, wants to see the total allowable catch (TAC) set at a higher level than recommended by ICES scientists when he sits down with other European ministers at the two-day Fisheries Council starting on November 16, and he argues quotas could even be increased.

He is expected to have the support of other cod-fishing nations, including Norway and Ireland, which have already questioned the scientific advice. Ministerial opposition to the recommended cut in cod quotas is likely to postpone a decision until early next year when talks can be held in tandem with negotiations on how to end the so-called ‘mackerel war’ between the EU and Iceland.

Mr Eustice argues that reducing cod quotas will result in more being discarded – at least until 2016 when the discard ban begins to be applied to cod. The species is taken from mixed fisheries around the UK and so cannot always be caught separately to other commercial stocks, such as whiting.

Cod will not be the only species for which he can be expected to ignore the ICES advice. Haddock and langoustine are among the species that scientists believe should see large cuts in the catch and which Mr Eustice is likely to challenge, but he recognises that “cod is a big one, in the North Sea in particular”.

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He said: “The reality is the stock is higher than the current TAC has recognised. We’ve had this for the last few years. There’s no point in reducing the quota if it’s going to lead to more discards.

“We don’t think there should be a cut. We’ve been very clear where there should be no change in the effort. We don’t think there should be a cut in the TAC either. There’s probably a case for a modest increase in TAC. There is some scientific evidence for increasing the TAC on cod.

“Ultimately, if the consequence is there’s a lower TAC where we are throwing more dead fish into the sea, that goes against what we are trying to achieve. I think it needs more flexibility in the system. Otherwise we are in the hopeless position of throwing dead fish back into the sea.”

He said the UK will continue to follow scientific advice but not necessarily that of ICES even when the reformed Common Fisheries Policy comes into force in January, bringing with it a discards ban and a legal obligation to set TACs at sustainable levels.

Barrie Deas, of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, wants cod quotas increased by 10 per cent rather than reduced. He said the quota cannot be set without taking into account the impact on fishermen and the likely rise in discards, and that the Cod Management Plan has become outdated by new data in cod stocks.

“I think there’s a recognition that things have just moved on,” he said. “It’s a good thing to have a long term management plan and once you have it you should follow it. But if there is new information that is pertinent, there should be flexibility to adapt any plan, particularly new science. The reality is these are complex fisheries and the science has changed over time.

“If we have a TAC that is too low we create a discard problem. If you cut the quota you won’t be affecting fishing mortality, you will be increasing discards because it’s essentially a mixed fishery.”

Scotland's fishermen are particularly anxious to avoid a cut in their days at sea which could lead to the fleet being further reduced. “It is essential that the Scottish and UK negotiating teams fight hard to ensure that the spectre of these cuts do not materialise,” said Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the SFF.

“Stocks are recovering in spite of the dysfunctional Cod Plan, and if there are any further cuts in days, then there quite simply won’t be a fleet left to sustainably harvest this increased abundance of fish.”

 

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