Scots fishermen deserve credit for protecting cod

We are now approaching a biomass of adult cod fish that can deliver maximum sustainability. Picture: PA
We are now approaching a biomass of adult cod fish that can deliver maximum sustainability. Picture: PA
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INNOVATION has led to sustainable industry, writes Mike Park

As preposterous headlines go, it was up there with “World War II Bomber Found on Moon” and “Statue of Elvis Found on Mars”.

In September 2012, the Daily Telegraph ran a story about fish stocks, stating that there were “Just 100 cod left in North Sea”.

Unfortunately the media has an in-built tendency to focus on negative and sensational stories, although this particular headline was so detached from reality that it was simply embarrassing – and it must have been so even for the scientists trying to highlight the dangers of overfishing.

If it wasn’t then, it certainly is now.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which provides the scientific data with which decisions are made about how much fish can be caught in any given year, recently reported a long-term trend of growing fish populations in the North Sea.

Indeed, such is the recovery of the cod stocks in particular that ICES has recommended a quota increase in 2016 of 15 per cent to more than 40,000 tonnes. Further increases are anticipated if the sustainable catching of cod, which has been under way for several years now, continues.

It’s a good news story resulting from individual suffering and self-sacrifice for the common good.

Scottish fishermen together with their colleagues south of the Border and across the water in Denmark have pulled a stock that was overfished at the turn of the century back to the point where we are now approaching a biomass of adult fish that can deliver maximum sustainable yield in the long term.

In human terms, this is broadly similar to having a big enough pension pot set aside to deliver the nice comfortable retirement we all desire.

The part played by Scottish fishermen has been immense. Not only have many sacrificed their businesses and way of life (more than 200 vessels have been decommissioned or sold since 2000) by helping reduce the amount of effort going into the mixed fishery where cod live, they have been leaders and pioneers in many other ways.

They have been at the forefront of initiatives such as closing large areas of the sea to protect aggregations of cod, especially vulnerable spawning cod, and have designed nets which reduce the capture of cod in the wider, mixed fishery by more than 60 per cent.

At a recent seminar that I attended in Brussels on the state of stocks, it was refreshing to hear the very clear message from both the scientific community and the European Commission that fishermen in Northern Europe had been instrumental in restoring fisheries to sustainable levels.

However, far from being complacent, fishermen in Scotland will continue to look at further ways of improving selectivity and reducing mortality, which will be necessary as we move towards an obligation to land all that we catch.

Scotland is very much the standard bearer when it comes to innovation and delivery, and we will insist that the banner remains firmly in our grasp as we continue to restore the stocks around our shores and provide the stability upon which business thrives.

But like our sportsmen and women, we wouldn’t mind a pat on the back or a round of applause now and again, especially from a sceptical and disbelieving media.

• Mike Park is chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association