A Newlyn fisherman, at sea, cleaning freshly caught fish aboard his boat surrounded by seagulls.

UK fishing industry eyes up more sustainable catches

The UK can’t help but make the most of what the seas have to offer, when it comes to fresh fish and other catches.

With an estimated value of £987 million in 2019, the UK fishing industry brings home the proverbial bacon (or should we say haddock and cod) to so many coastal communities up and down the country. Fish and other marine life caught in British fishing nets are typically found within the purview of the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a marine territory spanning 6.8 million square kilometres, when including waters surrounding overseas territories.

Over 773 million square kilometres of the EEZ encompass the European waters the UK holds. Some of the most common fish caught by British fishers include Atlantic and North Sea cod, mackerel, plaice and sole. Activity in this sector has actually fallen in recent years. In 2019, the amount of fish caught dropped 11 per cent to 622 million tonnes.

Keeping an eye on fish stocks

Rather than making indiscriminate hauls out at sea, the fishing industry is required to abide by strict regulations as laid out by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). The MMO is tasked with the job of balancing demand for good opportunities to making sure that stocks remain at a healthy level, preventing species from being overfished.

Cod, as part of a traditional fish and chip supper, is one of the most popular dishes in the UK, but you might not realise that this species of fish was on the brink of extinction as recently as the early 1990s, due to poorly-managed fishing practices in North America and Europe. In the 1970s, North Sea cod catches soared to between 200,000-300,000 tonnes per annum, but it wasn’t until catch quotas were reduced in the ensuing decades that this species was given a chance to recover.

By the early 2000s, the EU and Norway reached an agreement, and the Council of Ministers acted to limit the allowable catch of North Sea cod to just 27,300 tonnes a year. Reducing allowable catches allows fish to live long enough to start spawning the next generation, and in the process, shores up our fishing industry for generations to come. In essence, less fish for now means plenty of fish in the future.

Authorities move swiftly

Advances in technology make it easier than during previous decades to monitor species of fish in our seas and oceans, looking for signs of those at risk of decline. In 2019, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) served as a canary in the coalmine, warning that cod populations were dipping once more. As a result, ICES advised that fishing companies should reduce hauls by as much as 63 per cent compared to their previous recommended level for 2019, to just 10,457 metric tonnes.

Cod play a crucial role in maintaining healthy oceans. This is a real crisis for our seas and fixing it will require an emergency response from governments.

– Helen McLachlan, fisheries programme manager WWF – BBC News

ICES went as far as to advise that vessels trawling the English Channel and the southern Celtic seas should refrain from making any catches in 2020, as they had data to suggest cod populations in those waters were unsustainably low.

A wealth of data which we simply didn’t have before helps join up the dots and allow for more intelligent fishing patterns to be encouraged. However, the issue of overfishing is heavily influenced by consumer behaviour. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) helps give consumers an idea about which seafood products are sustainably sourced – all they need to do is read the label and look out for the MSC’s blue tick on items as a seal of approval. Keep an eye out for the blue tick, and you might just help protect precious fish stocks out in the deep blue itself.

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