Record stocks ‘disprove claims of overfishing’

Scottish industry leaders have hit out angrily at calls by a coalition of leading green groups for the Scottish government to reduce bottom trawling and introduce a raft of other restrictive measures to fight climate change, reports Tim Oliver.

In what they say is a new ‘landmark’ report, WWF, the RSPB and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) say ‘modernising the fishing industry and changing practices is vital to tackling the climate crisis and helping achieve net zero’.

They say the Scottish government, with responsibility for 61% of UK seas, ‘has a key role in futureproofing the fisheries sector and pioneering ‘climate-smart’ fisheries’.

The report outlines the ‘urgent’ action it says is required by all four UK governments to ‘futureproof’ the fisheries sector to improve its sustainability and ‘increase the opportunity for our seas to act as a vital carbon sink’ (see here).

Responding to the report, the Scottish industry has said that whitefish stocks in Scotland’s waters have doubled in size over the past 20 years and are now at record levels, according to an analysis of data from ICES in a soon to be published report by Shetland University of the Highlands and Islands.

At the same time, the amount of these fish being caught – the fishing mortality rate – has declined markedly.

The analysis shows that, with inevitable fluctuations, the aggregate spawning stock biomasses (SSB) of the principal whitefish stocks have increased since the early 2000s, with some stocks increasing by much greater amounts. Meanwhile, the average fishing mortality rates of these stocks have more than halved over the same period and are at their lowest ever level (see graphic below).

The huge improvement in stocks and reduction of fishing mortality prompted an immediate reaction from Scottish industry leaders to the NGOs’ report.

Simon Collins, executive officer for the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, said Scottish and UK government ministers and civil servants must resist ‘the burgeoning and misguided campaign being waged by environmental NGOs on the fishing sector’.

He said: “There are more fish in the sea than ever, and our boats are catching less than they have ever done. And yet if you listened to the headline seekers in the environmental NGOs, you would think that there was a crisis of overfishing and climate impacts.

“The simple truth is that like all sectors we have work to do on reducing our impact on the climate, but we have come an incredibly long way and are already a ‘climate-smart’ industry when it comes to the impact on stocks, as this research shows.”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the SFF, said: “Wild-caught fish is already a climate-smart choice, with our industry producing healthy protein food with a much lower carbon footprint than meat and most vegetables.

“Our industry’s carbon emissions are tiny in comparison to those from households and land-based transportation. Of course, as with all sectors, there is more work we can do, and indeed only today the UK government has announced that it wants to accelerate the development of zero-emission vessels as part of its hydrogen strategy.

“This is an industry that has a proud record when it comes to innovation and the adoption of new technology, with skippers constantly evaluating how to do things better. We work with government to ensure we are protecting marine features including key carbon sinks such as maerl beds, based on a robust process underpinned by evidence.

“That is the main reason that, contrary to what the NGOs allege, fish stocks in our waters are in such a healthy state, with, for example, the overall whitefish biomass at record high levels and catching [mortality] at an all-time low.

“Our industry is committed to sustainability – indeed, healthy stocks can be harvested in a much more carbon-efficient way than unhealthy ones. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are producing food, and wild- caught fish are a far better choice in terms of carbon footprint than other protein sources.”

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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