This post is by Charles Clover, executive director and co-founder of the Blue Marine Foundation.
Cod are so much part of the British seaside and culinary scene that it is often hard to grasp that these iconic creatures are severely overfished. Britain’s fish and chip shops and restaurants, which have long relied largely on supplies from Iceland and Norway, where stocks are in better shape, are now facing spiralling prices as sanctions on Russia affect supplies and costs.
What of our own populations of cod in the North Sea, Celtic Sea, Irish Sea and off the West of Scotland? Why can’t they take up the slack? It is what the National Federation of Fish Friers wants, now a third of their members are threatened with closure due to the rising price of ingredients? The answer is that we haven’t been looking after our own populations of cod well enough to count on them when our food security is threatened.
UK cod is still fished above sustainable levels
Currently, all five UK cod stocks are fished above scientifically advised sustainable levels. The four stocks for which we have full assessments are at risk of collapse from overfishing. The worst affected is the West of Scotland which has declined by 92 per cent since 1981, the inevitable result of the UK government setting catch limits above scientific advice for 35 consecutive years. (Cod in the west of Scotland is routinely caught and discarded in the langoustine and demersal trawl fisheries, even though scientific advice is for a zero catch.)
Even cod in the North Sea, which is more plentiful, is below the minimum level required by law. Yet, because of pressure from industry, catch limits are set at a level which makes recovery impossible.
An alliance of environmental groups and the National Federation of Fish Friers is asking the British public to sign a parliamentary petition, urging the UK government to better manage near-collapsed cod populations around the British Isles and set catch limits to allow stocks to recover to healthy levels. We need 10,000 signatures to get the government to respond, 100,000 signatures to secure a debate in parliament.
The government has committed to sustainable fishing
The modest proposition, enshrined in the petition, is that the UK government should negotiate catch limits for cod at sustainable levels which allow for recovery in annual talks with the EU. This unassuming request, to manage cod stocks sustainably, is no more than stated government policy, for the government is signed up to do so under a series of treaties, and under the Trade and Co-Operation agreement. Yet this is not happening, presumably because of a failure of political nerve.
The shocking truth is that 65 per cent of all catch limits for all stocks of fish, decided by the UK and EU in 2022, were set above scientific advice, according to a report for the government itself.
During the passage of the post-Brexit Fisheries Act through parliament, the government made much of its desire to be a “world leader” on marine protection. It said the Fisheries Act would deliver “gold standard” sustainable fisheries. But it rejected the House of Lords’ attempt to make sustainability the principal objective of the act (as Greener UK wanted) for murky and ill-explained reasons.
The cod petition offers concerned people the chance to express their displeasure at the government’s failure to apply the sustainability and scientific objectives that are written into the act.
There is a gap between what countries say and do
One of the oddest things about fisheries management is the gap between what countries say and what they do. For example, the UK is signatory to the five international agreements listed below – all of which commit the UK to ending overfishing (some explicitly state by 2020) – all of which have simply been ignored or dismissed.
Worse still, the government has done nothing to enforce measures banning the discarding of fish that are too small or over quota, as it is committed to do.
In fact, not only has discarding not been tackled, the Scottish government, seemingly determined to be worse than Defra, has gone out of its way to explicitly propose legalising discarding in several fisheries.
So it is time that British citizens, who are the rightful owners of the nation’s fish stocks, hit back. This petition gives them the opportunity to tell the government what they expect of it and that they want our stocks of cod nurtured and looked after wisely for future generations, instead of being squandered and driven to collapse.
Please sign the petition and share it with everyone you know.
Cod be with you.
The five international agreements the UK has signed: