Emergency action urged to protect dwindling North Sea cod stocks

Conservationists are calling for emergency measures to protect the future of North Sea cod after scientists identified plummeting stocks.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices) has recommended a 63% reduction to the available catch in the North Sea and eastern English Channel in 2020.

The intergovernmental body has advised a zero catch approach in the western English Channel and southern Celtic seas.

Fishing organisations said it comes as a “hammer blow” to the industry, but that they will do what is necessary to rebuild stocks.

The Marine Conservation Society (MSC), WWF and ClientEarth have, meanwhile, written a joint letter to Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Scottish Government to demand urgent steps are taken.

Samuel Stone, head of fisheries and aquaculture at MCS, said: “This is a fishery that was on the road to recovery, but failures to reduce fishing pressure have led to serious overfishing and a reversal in fortunes for cod.

“It’s a very harsh lesson, but this is why we need to implement legally binding commitments to fish at sustainable levels, to effectively monitor our fisheries and to take an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.

“We have to properly protect our fish stocks for the benefit of our seas, coastal communities and consumers who expect sustainable seafood.”

Measures being suggested include identifying and policing protected areas for cod, to safeguard spawning areas and young fish, and an immediate downward revision of the 2019 catch quota.

Responding to the latest Ices advice, Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: “There’s no escaping the fact that this unexpected downturn in the cod stock will be damaging for our fleet.

“However, we have proved before and we will prove again that through a series of responsible, practicable measures to be agreed with government fisheries managers, we can overcome the challenge, albeit that this time as we understand it climate change is a very significant factor.

“The fishing industry has a long and noble tradition of adapting to the ever-shifting dynamics of the natural world, and while it won’t be easy, we will do what is necessary to help restore the stock.”

Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group, said: “The latest Ices advice on North Sea cod is a hammer blow to an industry that has been instrumental over the past decade in rebuilding this stock to the point where Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation was achieved two years ago.

“The primary cause of this twist of fortune, the scientists tell us, is related to climate change and regime shift, which may be having a real and very significant negative impact on the essential elements that lead to good recruitment.

“That means that the situation is not fully within our control, however the industry remains 100% committed to sustainable catching and is united in its desire to do what it takes to rebuild the cod stock.”