By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Fisheries scientists and conservation groups have criticised Environment Minister Jonathan Shaw over his call for an increase in the UK's cod quotas.
Environment groups say even current catches could ruin cod stocks
The minister said he would be lobbying for an increase when EU ministers meet next month to decide 2008 quotas.
Leading researchers, including the EU's advisers, say stocks are still too low.
Conservation groups are urging the government to mandate introduction of nets that can target haddock or prawn without catching cod accidentally.
"I would say that 'business as usual' in the North Sea is not an acceptable position for a minister to be taking," said Helen MacLachlan, senior marine policy officer with WWF UK.
"To be looking for an increase in cod quotas without changing fishing practices is unsustainable and untenable."
Mr Shaw suggested a quota increase was justified because British prawn fishermen say they are catching a large amount of cod accidentally, which have to be discarded.
North Sea cod stocks have shown a slight recovery over the last few years, with the result that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), which advises the European Union, recommended that a catch of about 11,500 tonnes was sustainable for 2008.
That is about half the catch that European ministers awarded themselves last year. But Mr Shaw said the government was looking for an increase next year, not a reduction.
"We will be pressing the [European] Commission at the annual round in December for an increase in cod, and hopefully that will help the fishermen," he said.
The chair of Ices' advisory committee on fisheries management, Dr Martin Pastoors, told BBC News that the science did not justify Mr Shaw's position.
"We are recommending a reduction in catches, the reason being that that although stocks are improving, they are still at a very low level," he said.
"Our estimate of the adult stock size is around 35,000 tonnes; and if you go back to the 1970s, it was above 250,000 tonnes."
An unusually large number of fish born in 2005 are still in the North Sea, he said.
"Fishermen are seeing lots of cod that are not mature yet, and interpreting that as proof that there's been a large increase. But we need the adult stock to be at a safe level."
Professor Callum Roberts from the University of York said Mr Shaw did not appear to appreciate the details of the situation.
"If he's suggesting increases in cod quotas then he doesn't seem to be fully in control of his brief yet," he said.
"Yes, we need to get rid of discarding - I agree it's an appalling waste to throw so much stuff over the side - but keeping all the catch cannot be done by itself, it needs to be done alongside other measures."
He said the key was to switch from a management system based on quotas to one based on limiting fishing effort - the days boats spend at sea and the type of gear they are allowed to use - and marine protected areas.
Prawn trawlers currently use fine-mesh nets with "escape hatches" of much larger mesh size in the top, to allowed some of the white fish to swim out.
Scientists at the Scottish government's Fisheries Research Services in Aberdeen found that increasing the mesh size in the top could allow a majority of cod to escape. They have also created nets that will catch haddock and whiting, but not cod.
"We found this out 25 years ago," said Dick Ferro, until recently head of the agency's fishing technology and fish behaviour group.
Researchers designed nets that would separate haddock and cod
"As the net approaches, we observed that haddock and whiting and and saithe swim upwards, while cod and flatfish and prawns stay low."
Their design separates fish as they swim in, haddock heading to a higher enclosure and cod escaping lower down.
However, some of these technologies lead to fishermen losing a small portion of their target catch as well.
"If all designs for bycatch reduction that are now gathering dust in various research laboratories were put to use, the world's fisheries would be in a better shape," commented Professor Roberts.
"There are lots of good intentions out there, but there's been a lack of political will to implement them. So if you want people to use these approaches, you have to force them through legislation, and you probably also have to supply some kind of transitional payment."
Until such time as measures such as separator nets and marine reserves are mandatory, said Helen MacLachlan, there should be no question of simply asking for more quota.
"The last time we had a large year class of cod come through, we completely fished it out within a few years because we were so short-sighted.
"We absolutely cannot let it happen again."