Recovery of stocks of a species we were told was near extinction shows fishermen were right, writes Simon Collins
Back in 2012, the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Times famously screamed that there were, “just 100 cod left in the North Sea”. Even at the time, it ranked as one of the greatest howlers ever published – as the BBC pointed out a fortnight later, they were only about half a billion wrong. It would have been funny but for the impact it had on the Scottish fishing industry. Having slimmed down dramatically over the preceding decade, and after the voluntary adoption of serious practical measures to aid recovery of a depleted stock, the last thing it needed or deserved was a bunch of irresponsible journalists destroying the market for locally caught fish.
It’s a shame that you can’t catch cod in London, Edinburgh or the grim, grey streets where environmental activists come from. Unfortunately for the fishing industry, a very large proportion of the UK’s fish comes from the northern part of the North Sea, and particularly the waters around Shetland. From a part of the world that doesn’t even appear on some newspapers’ weather maps, in other words. More fish are landed in Shetland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, and to journalists in London it barely exists. Out of sight, out of mind … and from where tales of plentiful cod, not to mention a couple of dozen other commercial fish species, can be safely ignored.
And such tales! Cod everywhere, cod impossible to get away from, cod recovering too fast for vastly shrunken quotas to cope, cod of a size not seen for decades. Grinning anglers mooring up in Scalloway claiming that after a great day out the 100 cod were down to 90 or whatever.
It certainly made for a contrast with annual quota talks in Brussels, where UK and Scottish ministers had to fight year after year just to prevent already inadequate cod quotas being cut further. Whatever the scientists were doing, it didn’t tally with what fishermen were seeing every day, haul after haul, and needless to say the anti-fishing brigade were delighted with the whole process. Good news on wildlife is very bad news for environmental groups; doom, gloom and ecological catastrophe are what they need to suck in donations. From that point of view, the disappearing cod story was extremely opportune.
But the truth will out in the end. Almost three years on from “100 cod”, and five years after they last called for North Sea cod catches to be reduced to zero, the scientists assessing key fish stocks have just issued their latest advice. Published by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), it indicates that what scientists call the “spawning stock biomass” of North Sea cod has more than tripled in the past decade, and that this stock will be regarded as fully recovered within the next year or two. It also reveals survey data showing a six-fold increase in the size of the cod stock in the waters around Shetland, and calls for a substantial increase in cod quotas.
“Told you so” is not much comfort to the fishermen who have been portrayed as the bad guys over the years by national media, not to mention environmentalists who knew perfectly well what was going on all along. But fishermen did say so, and although grovelling apologies from their accusers are most unlikely, it is interesting to note that scientists themselves are now recognising the value of what fishing boats were seeing. There’s nothing like real-time data right from the sea; even the most sophisticated models on university desktops should be taken for what they are – theoretical approximations, to be handled with scepticism.
One of the hardest things for policymakers to grasp over the cod saga is that our commercial fishermen do not have an interest in exaggerating the size of fish stocks, far less in overexploiting them. This is especially true of fishermen from remote island and coastal communities that lack alternative employment. What advantage could there possibly be to wiping out the natural resources on which your villages, schools, shops and services depend? None at all – which is why the fishermen themselves took the first serious steps to protect cod when it ran into trouble two decades ago.
Funny how the environmentalists are keeping quiet about this dramatic turnaround. But then they had nothing to do with it, and will have to find some other scare story to attract the funding they need. For the rest of us, we can rest assured that buying and enjoying this wild-caught, 100 per cent organic food is a perfectly responsible thing to do. And the next time some idiot writes that there are only 100 fish left in the North Sea, someone might think to ask a fisherman whether it’s true.
• Simon Collins, executive officer, Shetland Fishermen’s Association