Cod stocks around the British coast are now so low that fishing should stop until they recover, scientists say.
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
The number of young North Sea cod in early 2003 was the lowest for 20 years.
North Sea cod "face collapse like Newfoundland's"
In many areas, the fish are even less numerous than the scientists had predicted.
They believe it will take several years before there can be any hope of a real recovery.
The warning comes from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), which co-ordinates marine research in the north Atlantic.
It has reviewed cod stocks in the North Sea, Kattegat (between Denmark and Sweden), the Irish Sea, and the waters west of Scotland, in the light of survey results in 2002 and early this year, and fisheries data from 2002.
It says the cod in these areas "are still below minimum recommended levels, and in many cases they are in even worse condition than previously predicted".
Ices scientists also reviewed the European Commission's proposal for a recovery plan for these cod stocks.
Long wait ahead
Ices says: "Their conclusion is that a prerequisite for the success of the plan is an initial boost of the spawning stock biomass.
"To achieve this, and in line with its advice in 2002, Ices advises that there should be no fishing for cod in these areas until the stocks show signs of recovery.
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"The first sign of a possible recovery will be seen when a good year class (fish hatched or born in a particular year) is found in research surveys.
"Once a good year class has been seen, it takes about three years before they contribute significantly to the spawning stock biomass.
"From this point it is predicted that following the commission's recovery plan it will take at least a further five years for the stock to recover.
"And some simulations estimate that recovery time could be as high as 12 years.
"There is no way of predicting when the next strong year class will occur. For the North Sea cod, the last one was in 1996."
Ices says the North Sea cod are still below the minimum recommended level of 70,000 tonnes, and recent survey results suggest there will be even fewer young fish than assumed in 2002.
If fishing pressure continues at present high levels, it says, the spawning stock biomass in 2004 is predicted to be 28,800 tonnes, 4,200 tonnes less than estimated last October.
'Heads in sand'
The spawning stock of cod in the Kattegat fell by 71% from the 1970s to the 1990s, to about 10,000 tonnes. Irish Sea cod are still below the minimum recommended level.
Last October estimates suggested the west of Scotland cod spawning stock would be 6,700 tonnes. The present estimate is 2,500 tonnes.
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The UK Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, said: "The fishing industry have to recognise that there's a problem, and they're simply not doing that at the moment.
"It's disappointing there's no upturn in stocks. If the advice suggests it's as bad as this, we cannot ignore it."
WWF, the global environment campaign, said: "For the past fifteen years, political pressure has led to quotas being set an average of 30% above the recommendations made by Ices.
"Although some interim measures have been put in place to take the pressure off fish stocks... they have clearly not been enough."
Brendan May, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, said: "The current mess and appalling mismanagement of the world's largest renewable food source is a consequence of the European Union's repeated refusal to follow scientific advice.
"As scientists issue warnings that the North Sea faces a similar collapse to that in Newfoundland in the early 1990s, the EU is no nearer to preventing the same thing from happening in our own waters."