Experts say methods of setting fish catch numbers should be scrapped
EVEN if fish stocks fully recover, catches should never again be allowed to reach their former levels, according a new study published this week by a team of international experts.
Based on their groundbreaking analysis of global fisheries, the scientists say we should scrap current methods of setting fish catches because they allow too many fish to be caught.
If their recommendation is adopted, only much lower catch levels will be permitted in future.
The new paper, Rebuilding Coastal Fisheries, resolves a long-running dispute about the state of the world's fisheries, and provides some hope that stocks could eventually recover.
Steps being taken to curb overfishing are beginning to succeed in five of the ten areas studied. Iceland, New Zealand and areas of the US are singled out for praise.
Professor Boris Worm from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who led the new work, said: "Across all regions, we are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing stock collapse, but this paper shows that our oceans are not a lost cause."
It is estimated that 88 per cent of European stocks have been overfished.
Professor Jeff Hutchings, from Dalhousie University, an author of the new study, told The Scotsman Scottish stocks were included in the new analysis: "The west of Scotland stocks are amongst the worst in terms of excessive fishing levels. The stocks of west of Scotland haddock and whiting, for example, are at their lowest on record, since 1978, while cod stocks are at their fourth lowest on record."
Under fire in the new study is the traditional method of setting catch levels, referred to as the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) approach. Catches at this level generally drive fish populations down to 50 to 25 per cent of what they would be if there was no fishing at all.
The study suggests much smaller catch targets would, in the long term, still give fish harvests as high as 90 per cent of those based on the MSY approach, but have much less devastating ecological effects.
The fish would get bigger, their populations, and the marine ecosystem itself, become more stable, and there would be much less chance of the fisheries collapsing.
Mike Park, executive chairman of the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association, said that while they fully supported trying to make fisheries more stable in the long term, the socioeconomic dimension was missing from the new study.
"You cannot set catches so low that the fishing fleet itself becomes uneconomic. Restructuring the fishing industry can't be done instantaneously. We need a balanced approach."
Professor Marc Mangel, director of the Centre for Stock Assessment based at the University of California, told The Scotsman: "Few scientists now consider MSY to be the right approach. But what really matters is how new scientific advice is translated into management, and this is where the going gets tough."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: 'Maximum sustainable yield is one of many potential management targets and the choice of target will depend on a number of social, economic and conservation priorities.
"Fishing in line with an MSY target remains our policy, not least because it is in line with the Johannesburg Declaration (from the World Summit on Sustainable Development) that stocks should be managed in line with an MSY target by 2015.
"There are still some stocks where mortality rates are currently running above MSY targets. For these stocks, at least, it makes sense to see MSY as an initial target since it is moving exploitation in the right direction. Once that stage has been reached, it would be sensible to reconsider the value of MSY targets."
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