The annual round of EU fishing negotiations that concludes today in Brussels is a much less fractious affair than it was a decade ago. Nowadays ministers from EU member states are more likely to listen to scientists on the total allowable catches for different fish species, writes Jonny Hughes.
This is something we should all welcome given that the fish in our seas are a common resource. They are owned by no one but the responsibility of everyone – not just those to whom we grant rights to fish.
The history of over-exploitation of fish stocks in Scottish waters is a well-documented tragedy. Herring provided tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland and was the principal source of protein for millions of people in Britain before the fish began to disappear in the 1960s. The North Sea herring fishery suffered a total collapse and had completely closed down by 1978.
History almost repeated itself with North Sea cod when stocks dwindled to just 36,000 tonnes in 2006 from over 270,000 tonnes in the early 1970s. This time the collapse was averted thanks to a recovery plan which included closing key spawning areas to fishing, real-time closures to protect aggregations, limiting days at sea and testing less damaging fishing nets. By 2017, the Marine Stewardship Council had certified North Sea cod as sustainable.
This is good progress but we remain a long way from a return to healthy and productive seas. Only a quarter of fish and shellfish stocks in the EU are in good health as measured by fishing mortality and reproductive capacity. Compare that to the 19th century when a single boat could catch a tonne of halibut on the Dogger Bank in one day. Such bounteous times are unlikely to ever return and, whilst the recent story of recovery is more promising in the north-east Atlantic and Baltic Sea, the situation remains desperate in the Mediterranean and Black Seas where almost every commercial species is in critical condition.
Whatever happens now with Brexit, Scotland and the rest of the UK will need to continue to talk with our neighbours. Fish will always swim between political boundaries so negotiations on who can catch what, how much, when and where will always be needed, whether we are in the Common Fisheries Policy or not.
Climate change is impacting where fish spawn and gather so future agreements will also need to consider the rapidly shifting marine ecosystem. Squid, anchovies and blue-fin tuna are all moving into UK waters in response to seas warming by an extraordinary 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade.
To effectively manage our fisheries in a sustainable manner that benefits our environment and economy, as well as fishing communities, we need action in a number of areas, including developing a well-managed network of Marine Protected Areas that safeguards the often fragile habitats used by spawning fish.
We also need to increase efforts to monitor fishing boats to ensure they comply with rules; take decisions on the management of fisheries based on robust evidence and within environmental limits; and ensure the impacts of fishing activities on the environment are taken into account. As we move into a period of ecological and political uncertainty, it is vital that we continue to put science above the febrile politics of fishing. Only through a strong network of protected areas and by ensuring allowances are based on strong evidence will we be able to ensure a steady supply of fish for our tables.
Jonny Hughes is chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Follow him on Twitter @JonnyEcology.