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NEF - North Sea cod - is the sea half full or half empty?

Blog posted BY: GRIFFIN CARPENTER (APRIL 8, 2015):

“North Sea cod stocks bounce back” reports today’s Guardian. This certainly sounds like welcome news but it may seem at odds with what you read about the state of global fisheries and other news stories about North Sea cod.

The first important point to recognise is the difference between the state of a fish stock and the general trend. After decades of decline and near collapse the amount of cod in the North Sea (measured as spawning stock biomass) has been increasing for the past several years. But overall, the current state of stock still remains in poor shape – something quite clear if you look at the data itself:

It’s clear that the past few years have seen improvements, but much still needs to be done. This shift from overexploitation to higher, sustainable levels is the central economic argument we make on fisheries and natural resources in general. Historic overfishing has left stocks depleted to such low levels that allowing them to recover would mean larger annual harvests.

What has led to this noticeable progress towards stock recovery? As a quota species, North Sea cod are managed at the EU level with total allowable catches distributed to Member States. Under this system much has been made of the quota cuts to North Sea cod. Prominent voices in the fishing industry and sometimes the government itself have expressed outrage at limits to cod quota, even as the stock size was severely diminished. Now there is evidence cited by an industry body itself that recovery is taking place. While progress is mixed, the same general trend applies across major fish stocks in the North Atlantic.

This progress should continue but is limited by two major barriers, both of which we have been working on in our fisheries research here at NEF.

First, our knowledge of recovery is very patchy in places due to poor data. Seafish, the government-funded body representing the seafood industry whose research is referenced in the Guardian article, acknowledge this and have produced a useful tool for displaying what data is available and what it shows. A greater proportion of the EU subsidies used to support the transition to sustainable fisheries should be diverted to ensure more data collection projects. The same goes for control and enforcement – a notoriously thorny issue in our common waters.

Another barrier to progress is the quota setting process itself. Our recent series of reports highlighted those EU member states receiving quota in excess of scientific advice. While we don’t know what was said in the closed door quota negotiations, we do know who is benefitting and celebrating their “achievements” to the industry.

In their own analysis of agreed quota verses scientific advice, Seafish notes that the limit for North Sea cod was set at 31% over scientific advice. There is a direct relationship between levels of catch and stock recovery. Setting quota above scientific advice will delay stock recovery and the associated economic benefits.

It’s important to recognise that North Sea cod are recovering just as it’s important to recognise the state of the stock remains weak due to overfishing. Behind the trend lies a scientific approach to quota management that, despite being resisted by some interests with every quota agreement, is now showing signs of success. Further success is dependent on good data, enforcement, and following scientific advice. Is the sea half full or half empty? In this case, it’s probably a bit of both. 


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