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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Wasted catches hit Europe's cod
Anne-Marie Bullock
Radio 4's Costing the Earth

Despite cod stocks in UK waters being at risk, fishermen are being forced to throw thousands of tonnes back into the sea dead while Iceland, an important supplier to much of Western Europe, is cutting the amount of cod it catches because of concern over falling stocks.

Iceland has long been heralded as an example of sustainable fishing and the country relies on the industry more than any other state in the world.

Johann Sigurjonsson, Director of the Marine Research Institute
The Icelandic fisheries are very good at the moment but we are taking measures to ensure this will continue to be so
Johann Sigurjonsson, Director of the Marine Research Institute

Perhaps this is why their government is prepared to take drastic action and unpopular measures to preserve the industry.

From this month Iceland's cod quotas have been slashed by a third because scientists say there has been a decline in young fish.

Johann Sigurjonsson, Director of the Marine Research Institute says it has been difficult to persuade the fishermen of the need.

"Perhaps the biggest difficulty is the Icelandic fisheries are very good at the moment but we are taking measures to ensure this will continue to be so. We believe it is important to make the spawning stock stronger both in volume and to secure a higher proportion of large females because they are more important in the reproductive capacity of stock. It is an important and difficult decision," he said.

Minister of Fisheries Einar Gudfinnson admits it has been controversial.

"Of course we will see boats tied up and some not fishing. Many will transfer their rights to others. We have listened to the advice of scientists generally but now we have taken it more seriously than ever before because of these strong warning lights. It will have negative implications politically and economically but we are sure it will have positive long-term effects," he explained.

Heavily dependent

Fishing trawlers in harbour
Since 1983 the UK's white fish fleet has fallen by 70%

Over the last 20 years Western Europe and the UK in particular have become heavily dependent on Icelandic fish as stocks in EU waters have declined.

The impact on the UK and other Western European countries is likely to be a significant rise in the price of cod.

Managers at the Fishgate auction in Hull anticipate an increase of up to 20% over the next year, not only due to shorter supply but also competition from Spain and Portugal for their salted cod.

But there are also lessons from Iceland for the European Commission whose own attempts to preserve fish stocks have proven far less successful.

Since the introduction of the Common Fisheries Policy in 1983, the UK's white fish fleet has reduced by 70% while the UK's cod quota has reduced from more than 100,000 tonnes to just 18,000.

Other countries have also suffered big cuts. But stocks have failed to recover.


A recent report highlighted the problem that every year thousands of tonnes of cod are caught and then thrown back dead into the sea to comply with the rules of the European Commission's Common Fisheries Policy.

Fish which are undersize or exceed the permitted quota for particular species has to be thrown back into the sea but less than 1% of discarded fish survive so most is wasted.

Last year more than 8,000 tonnes of North Sea cod was discarded, that is more than 30% of the amount brought in and sold.

Cod caught in the North Sea
The UK cod quota is 18,000 tonnes

The report just released from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) shows that in "Subarea 7" - the English Channel, Western Approaches, Celtic and Irish Seas - 63% by number and 35% by weight of all fish caught are discarded.

Dr Joe Horwood, the chief scientist at CEFAS says:

"The large majority of cod thrown back are below the minimum landing size. This is set to deter fishermen from areas where small fish are but unfortunately small cod is found in many places so they will catch them.

"Certainly cod numbers would be significantly improved if we removed all discarding. The amount of cod discarded has been increasing as we have reined back on the size of the quota and so more marketable cod are thrown back as well. We would like an ideal balance between the size of the fleet catching cod and the size of the quota. Fishing effort has not been reduced to the level where we think it is necessary to deliver cod recovery at present."

The fishing industry agrees that the level of discard is an appalling waste.

"It really is a shocking waste. Not only are the fish killed unnecessarily - the economic value has been lost and the source of food to the consumer - but they are no longer there to reproduce so it is a double whammy. This is one of the fundamental failures of the cod recovery plan," says Doug Beveridge, assistant chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

Cod recovery plan

The EU is now beginning to look at how it might reduce its discard rate but the mixed nature of its waters mean it cannot be eliminated entirely.

The EC's fisheries policy has also been criticised for failing to follow the advice of its own scientists on limiting the catch for the different species.

But politics also plays a role in what is actually set according to former UK fisheries minister Elliot Morley.

Cod on deck of fishing boat
More than 8,000 tonnes of North Sea cod was discarded in 2006

"Many fisheries ministers in EU countries are under pressure from their fishing industries who are not interested in the science. They often dispute it and all they are interested in is getting as much quota as possible and judge the success of the minister by the amount he brings back so a lot of pressure is on ministers to talk up quotas," he said.

A specific "cod recovery plan" was also brought in three years ago limiting the number of days cod fishermen had at sea but an EC report 'Fishing Opportunities 2008' published in June says the policy has not brought the expected improvements.

Introducing the report, Joe Borg, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, said total allowable catches (TACs) have been "substantially higher than those recommended by scientists, by an average of between 42% and 57%".

He added: "This situation is aggravated by the fact that a number of TACs are, in practice, consistently overshot."

He said the problems "will have to be urgently resolved in order to return fish stocks to a healthier and more secure biological state".

Costing the Earth: Plenty More Fish in the Sea? is broadcast on Radio 4 on Thursday 13 September 2100BST, repeated Friday 14th at 1500BST.

Fishermen hope to land cod deal
04 Jul 07 |  North East/N Isles


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