Call for reform of ‘flawed’ stock assessment process

ICES is recommending a reduction for 2022 in the North Sea cod TAC of 10.3%, and a reduction for North Sea and west coast saithe of 24%, while also advocating huge increases for North Sea and west coast haddock (154%) and North Sea whiting (236%), reports Tim Oliver.

The advice has set alarm bells ringing in the industry, and led to renewed calls for a revamp of the stock assessment process.

Scottish industry leaders said the advice did not reflect what fishermen were seeing on the grounds, and slammed the imbalance of advice for heavy cuts in some species and big increases in others that were found together in mixed fisheries. 

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said the federation was ‘dismayed’ with the advice for a ‘swingeing 10% cut’ in the North Sea cod TAC.

“This simply fails to reflect the volumes of cod that fishermen are seeing on the grounds, and on the back of huge cuts in the previous two years, is desperate news for the industry.

“No account is being taken of the distribution of different cod stocks within the North Sea and adjacent areas, and ICES needs to alter its modelling to take account of such spatial considerations. 

“We are aware that the process is moving towards the inclusion of such considerations, but progress is too slow, with the interim modelling not being good enough to ensure a fair transition.

“When you add in the fact that there is advice for large increases in TACs for other species, namely North Sea haddock and whiting, and serious quota constraints due to the appalling Brexit deal, sound management of these fisheries becomes almost impossible to achieve.”

The SFF chief said that in a mixed fishery, low quotas for cod restrict the opportunities for fishermen catching the other key species.

She added: “One sign of hope is on West of Scotland whiting, which industry has been telling scientists for years has been plentiful, to no avail. After assisting in the process that ICES followed to change the model for that stock, we now have advice for whiting that a bit more closely reflects what skippers are seeing on the grounds.” 

The Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association (SWFPA) and Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA), Scotland’s two largest fishing associations, said the whole approach to setting catching opportunities was flawed and in need of substantive reform.

“These numbers bear no relation to what our members are seeing out on the fishing grounds every day,” said Simon Collins, executive officer of the SFA.

“With such wild swings in both directions a regular occurrence in recent years, it is clear that ICES needs to take a good hard look at the process and consider whether its modelling is still relevant.

“At the same time, our governments need to ask themselves whether they are willing to create insoluble problems for our fishing fleet simply because a computer says so. The computer has often been wrong in the past, and in terms of cod at least, it is catastrophically wrong now.” 

Mike Park, chief executive of the SWFPA, said: “It is very clear that ICES has not kept up with changes in the ecosystem, such as the migration of cod stocks, which appears to be being driven by climate change. 

“The SWFPA and SFA ask the Scottish government to take seriously their suggestion of an independent panel to assess these numbers and put them into proper perspective. 

“It is also time for urgent engagement by both the Scottish and UK governments with industry on this issue. 

“There is no point in advising large increases in quotas for some stocks when absurdly small quotas for others caught at the same time prevent vessels from going to sea. Fish don’t swim together in neat shoals of their own species.”

Barrie Deas, chief executive of the NFFO, representing fishermen south of the border, said the federation was due to meet CEFAS scientists on Wednesday and Thursday (July 7/8) this week to discuss this year’s ICES advice, and shortly after that with DEFRA to discuss the management implications, and the negotiations for 2022.

“One of the management challenges is how to respond to the ecosystem changes that are evidently underway. A balance has to be struck between pretending that nothing is changing and overreaction,” he said.

“In particular, a more thoughtful approach is required when the scientific advice suggests that stocks of different species caught in the same mixed fisheries are headed in divergent directions.”

He said he would comment further after the science briefings.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here


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