That worm (Fishing News, 5 November, 2015) is less than 2cm long but builds tubes out of sand, shell fragments and other debris, cemented with mucous, that can grow to 50cm. In high densities. They can form low, mostly sub-tidal, reefs. These accrete and decay to no apparent pattern but for the years that individual reefs might exist, they shelter many organisms low in the marine food chain including juvenile fish and are sufficiently important to have made it onto Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive.

In 2013, Eastern Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (EIFCA) introduced a flexible byelaw allowing the closure of ground, and a handful of small areas with reefs of either kind were duly closed to bottom trawling and dredging. (Fishing News, 13 December, 2013).

But the process has since moved on to mixed sediments and sub-tidal muds and their communities, and here the waters get a little murkier because detailed survey information on the Wash seabed is still thin. It has nevertheless been concluded, on best available evidence and advice from Natural England, that certain levels of fishing effort might indeed be damaging.

The immediate problem for the industry is that those sediments and muds – more extensive than Sabellaria spinulosa reefs – are favoured by shrimps that tend to bury themselves by day to avoid predators and emerge to forage at night. Nearly half of Wash shrimp trawling is reckoned to take place over such ground, and EIFCA is thus having to work out how to keep the fishery open in the face of the precautionary principle and in the absence of ‘full scientific certainty’ on trawl impact.

Its required ‘proportionate and cost effective’ response looks like coming down to containing fishing effort within parameters that, on present estimates, will keep impact to a level from which habitats can recover each year. The proposal to the industry is for a combination of more ground closures (amounting to 14.3% of the SAC, though not all of that is prime shrimp ground) with a two-year monitoring period; an annual permit system; obligatory iVMS in vessels (for which funding may be available) and a maximum fishing ‘footprint’ based on a total number of tows, which the ground is considered capable of tolerating without permanent damage.

On the latter point, 12,897 tows are the number mooted, and if that seems remarkably precise, it’s the product of a calculation based on average annual numbers of shrimping trips, average number of tows per trip and their duration and speed. With an average shoe width of 20cm, at four shoes per twin beam, all multiplied up to see how much seabed is being trodden on.

That is then laid against the area of sensitive feature to be fished to reach an estimated threshold of tolerable contact. It sounds arbitrary but is based on best available evidence, and until there is that full scientific certainty, it – or something like it – seems to be the best chance of keeping the fishery open in the face of legislation that could otherwise theoretically close it.

One slightly hopeful sign is that available data suggests that effort probably hasn’t reached that threshold in the past six years. And in some years, it seems to have been well below, although in two of the years it came close and, on present proposals, would have triggered further temporary restrictions – and perhaps even temporary closure – to ensure that the threshold wasn’t crossed. This current year, with plentiful shrimp and good prices, could itself push the boundary.

All of which makes for a sea change in a fishery that hitherto has been free for all, with fat and lean years according to natural stock fluctuations of a species that breeds two or three times a year and lives for two or three. Most critically, shrimping has always been there as that year-round option gluing the fishery together and if that changes, there has to be a chance that some skippers and crews will come unstuck and have to leave the industry.

In the end, everything hangs on the legislative need for full scientific certainty and no one is holding their breath on that; EIFCA’s resources are nowhere near commensurately above those of the old Sea Fisheries Committee in the context of the wider brief.

Nevertheless, a little refining of the seabed science might come out of a two-year programme of gear trials which, subject to EMFF funding, will begin soon and will involve comparison of standard shrimp gear with an innovative system developed in Holland.

SeeWing, as the system is known, (Fishing News, 7 April, 2016) has a trawl beam with an inverted aerofoil profile – rather than the pipe-shaped standard beam – which, it is claimed, keeps the gear sufficiently close to the ground while at the same time, minimising contact with the seabed by wheels (rather than shoes) at each end. It was developed initially to minimise drag, and thus save fuel, in flatfish beamers, but while it certainly did that – by 25%-30% for bigger boats – fish catches were unsatisfactory and it was adapted for shrimping for which catches are much better.

One SeeWing rig has already been working in the Wash in a joint venture by the two King’s Lynn processing/boat owning companies, Lynn Shellfish and John Lake Shellfish, (who buy all shrimp caught in the Wash and sell on to Holland) in an attempt to find a way forward.

But the £200,000+ trial will take a more forensic look at its impact on the ground, and at that of conventional gear. It could even conceivably show that conventional gear isn’t doing unacceptable damage.

The results will be awaited with interest, although at roughly £15,000 per rig, SeeWing isn’t cheap and might test the finances of smaller operators, many of whom historically have dipped in and out of shrimping and would need to see prospects of enough work to generate a return on such an investment.

And that to some extent then hinges on the permit system, several aspects of which are still to be established: who gets one; whether track record will be needed (in recent years some boats have stayed on the cockles when they were plentiful and shrimps weren’t); whether potential new entrants will be shut out or whether they will be let in and then take a slice of a possibly smaller fishery at the expense of already invested regulars.

The possibility that not all fishers will get what they want is generating a little anguish.

But there is another crunching issue now coming over the North Sea horizon, which is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation, and it’s looking like an essential rather than an option.

The fact is that the end buyers – the supermarkets – are saying they want it, which in turn means that the Dutch buyers want it too, and by next summer on present indications, so Wash catches and their provenance will have to fit the criteria. The accreditation process is under way, as it is with most shrimp fisheries in the southern North Sea.

To some extent, the MSC requirements mirror what is already being proposed for the fishery in terms of minimising environmental impact and so in that respect, discussions are heading for the same place.

But in the end, there are going to be restrictions on shrimp effort where there haven’t been in the past, and that may or may not mean the fishery shrinking.

EIFCA and the industry are trying to minimise the pain.

Read more features from Fishing News here.

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