North Sea leaders plan joint approach to shared problem

Skippers and industry representatives from the main North Sea fishing nations met in Copenhagen at the end of March to work together to improve the scientific surveys that inform the setting of international cod quotas, reports Andy Read.

Building on a previous industry meeting held in Aberdeen, colleagues from Shetland, Scotland, Denmark, Norway and England discussed the quota mismatch that they are facing at sea, with vessels finding solid stocks of cod in contrast to the current official assessments.

Discussions painted a unanimous picture of an abundant cod stock stretching across the entire northern North Sea and beyond.

North Sea quotas for the species have been reduced by 70% in only three years, as scientific surveys appear to have failed to detect the same mass of fish being encountered by fishing crews. The northern sub-stock of cod appears, in particular, to now be expanding southwards, with skippers reporting heavy showings of cod as far south as the Forties field.

Danish Fishermen’s Association representative Alfred Fisker Hansen, skipper of Linette L-120, said: “Our boats are finding cod in quantities, and in areas, where it hasn’t been seen for years. We’re now struggling to avoid it, with quotas so low, and it has become a choke species for the whole Danish whitefish fleet.”

August Fjeldskå from the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association, who skippers Nesejenta AG-1-LS, said: “There is so much cod in Norwegian waters now that you struggle to fish for any other species. We have a problem, and we need to know why the science isn’t picking up on the huge amounts of cod – so that it can be reflected in fairer quotas.”

In February, skippers from the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association committed to investigating alternative industry-led stock assessment surveys, in an attempt to tackle the issue of poor science.

The Scottish government’s annual scientific stock assessments need urgent reform, with doubts about the fishing gear, trawl times and locations that are being used to assess for cod, they said.

James Anderson, chair of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA) and skipper of the Alison Kay LK 57, said: “We now have international agreement to work together. Fishermen are ready and willing to collaborate with government scientists to see survey trawl results and quota recommendations made more realistic.

“The current situation at sea is putting viable boats at risk. I’ve been fishing since the mid-1980s and have never seen so much cod around Shetland. We try to avoid it because quotas have been cut – but that’s nearly impossible now without wasted trips and wasted fuel at great expense. It’s difficult to make sense of that as a fisherman.”

SFA executive officer Daniel Lawson, who was also at the talks, told Fishing News: “We understand that developing an entirely independent industry-led survey will require a time-series of several years before it is able to feed into an accurate stock assessment, which is why we prefer to talk with Marine Scotland about their own surveys, and immediate improvements that could be made.

“At individual level, marine lab officers have been constructive and collaborative, and we trust that our industry colleagues around the northern North Sea are seeing the same positive relationship.

“We are all writing to ICES, asking as a matter of urgency for a major cod seminar to take place, to support a genuine two-way dialogue between industry and scientists, that can improve the accuracy of future stock assessments. In the meantime, we hope also to develop with Marine Scotland an agreement about improved survey work and data collection.

“Marine Scotland has recently taken the approach of allowing the pelagic sector to lead on fisheries research, and we are hoping that this is a foundation where a similar level of trust with the whitefish sector can be built up.”

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael welcomed the prospect of international co-operation between fishermen on the issue. He said: “Closer working between scientists and fishermen on all sides of the North Sea to monitor stocks can only be a good thing.

“We all know that fisheries quotas are perpetually out of date – whether too low or indeed too high. Now is the time to bring scientific analysis and the reality at sea more closely in line with one another.

“I have said before that it is in the interests of fishermen themselves to ensure that they have sustainable stocks for the years and decades to come – that is still more true when there is international agreement to ensure that no one country can overstep the mark at the expense of others. Fairness and accountability to one another and to the sustainability of the sea must be the goal.”

He added: “Bringing cod quotas more closely in line with up to date science may be still more timely in light of economic sanctions on Russia, which controls close to half the global supply of whitefish. We cannot easily mitigate the disruption caused to supply chains linked to Russia in recent weeks, but a more accurate accounting of North Sea stocks will put us on a more stable footing for the future.”

Call for new cod symposium

NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas, who also attended the industry meeting in Copenhagen, said he welcomed the idea of an international ‘cod symposium’ similar to the major two-day event held near Edinburgh in 2007, reports Tim Oliver.

This drew together industry representatives, fishery scientists and fishery managers from all the relevant states to discuss every aspect of management of the North Sea cod fishery.

“You have the industry, the scientists and the industry in the room, and you look at the data, the models and the management. You cover everything and have a really thorough look at what the management options might be,” Barrie Deas told Fishing News.

“You look at whether the science can be improved, and try to build a consensus and generate new ideas.

“A lot came out of the 2007 symposium that was subsequently adopted, maybe not straight away, but it had a big influence on the direction of management.”

Barrie Deas said that a lot is happening in the cod fishery now, with the change in distribution being a major issue, and it was a question of how everyone adapted to the changing stock situation to keep a viable fishing industry.

“We very much support the idea of putting our heads together,” he said.

“It worked back then and it’s still a successful model, where you share expertise, hear knowledge, gain an understanding of what’s possible and what’s not possible, and hear ideas on what improvements can be made – whether that’s on data gathering, how relevant the models are, their strengths and weaknesses, and how that all translates into management.”

It was agreed at the Copenhagen meeting that chairman Mike Park would write again to ICES, which has previously expressed an interest in the idea.

It held a similar symposium on mackerel two years ago which was widely regarded as a success.

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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