Fisheries policy has always had a great impact not just on those who fish commercially, but also those who fish for fun. And the contribution the latter make to our economy is vast: in Europe’s north-western coastal communities, including Britain, more than €100 million a year is spent on recreational sea bass fishing alone.
Indeed, it was British recreational sea bass anglers who first alerted me in September 2014 that bass stocks in our waters are in a state of crisis. Some emergency measures were introduced last year to alleviate this threat, but catches were still too high – around four times higher than sustainable levels. That’s why the European Commission proposed new emergency measures which would see a ban on catching sea bass during the six key spawning months for the species.
But the Commission can only propose, it doesn’t decide. National ministers, meeting in the Council, take the decision. And they, including the UK’s George Eustice, watered down the Commission’s proposals — putting in exemptions for commercial fishing using hooks and lines and set gillnets (which accounted for 48% of total sea bass landings last year). The exemptions will allow such fishers to catch more than one tonne of bass each in four out of the six spawning months. This is a hugely short-sighted decision and threatens to damage the future of the industry as well as the conservation of the species.
Never one to shy away from attacking the wrong target, Nigel Farage raised this in a parliamentary debate yesterday, blaming the the European Commission for the ministers’ decision. Despite being an MEP for 17 years, he either has no idea how decisions are taken — or else he is cynically trying to blame the Commissioners for a decision he knows had nothing to do with them. Of course, Nigel has previously revealed the low importance he attaches to fishing issues by attending only 1 out of 42 meeting of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee in the two and a half years he was a member. Only if he thinks there is an opportunity to attack the EU does he suddenly appear concerned.
In any case, the reactive measures agreed by national ministers serve as a reminder that sea bass is a species for which we need preemptive, evidence-based policy-making. That’s why Labour MEPs called last year for the European Commission to draft a multiannual management plan for sea bass stocks, with specific references to the importance of recreational fisheries. This contained measures which the UK’s Angling Trust supported, but which UKIP and the Tories voted against.
A multiannual management plan, using improved data on bass stocks, would provide more effective mechanisms to safeguard the stock. Without such a plan, we face having to resort to emergency measures every year, for many years to come — or worse, total stock collapse, which would kill the industry completely.
Meanwhile, for recreational fishers, the immediate impact of this year’s emergency measures will be noticeable. During last year’s emergency measures, EU funds were made available to provide a safety net for fishers, to help ensure that the industry could weather the ban. When this year’s measures were announced, I asked the European Commission if similar funds could be made available for the recreational fisheries industry. I will update this blog when I receive a response.