By Lewis Smith
Populations of sea bass have crashed to “dangerously low” levels and fishing for it should be barred in UK waters, scientists have warned.
Sea bass have been declining in UK waters for several years and several measures to cut catches have been taken but have failed to stem the decline, the latest advice to governments shows.
The slump is now so acute, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) has advised the UK and the European Union, that catches should be cut to zero in 2017.
“There should be zero catch (commercial and recreational) in 2017,” ICES said in its latest official guidance, issued in June.
The advice covers the areas of UK and northern European waters where the most commercially important populations of sea bass are found in the North Sea, English Channel, Irish Sea and Celtic Sea.
In 2010 the breeding population of sea bass in the region was approaching 20,000 tonnes and more than 6,000 tonnes were landed. By 2015 the breeding stock had declined to less than 8,000 tonnes, with declared landings of about 3,000 tonnes.
Several measures to reduce catches have been introduced, including a temporary ban on all pelagic fishing for several months in 2015, and limits on the number of fish recreational anglers are allowed to catch.
However, while the restrictions have had some impact they have failed to save the fish from further decline and the population is still in freefall.
The Marine Conservation Society said the ICES advice underlined “the desperate situation this restaurant and recreational angling favourite is in”.
Samuel Stone, MCS Fisheries and Aquaculture Programme Co-ordinator, said: “The fishing industry has fought hard to play down the seriousness of the situation. In 2014, scientists recommended an 80 per cent reduction in bass catches, and whilst large reductions have been made, the resulting reductions have been more like 50 per cent.
“And even then there is huge uncertainty in the actual catch figures for bass as it’s known to be illegally caught and sold in the UK and there is a large recreational catch.”
MCS has warned that even if there are zero catches in 2017, a likelihood it described as “impossible” the species would still be close to or below “critical levels”.
It is urging additional measures to cut catch levels and to bring in further changes to fishermen’s equipment to make it more selective in the size of fish are caught. Moreover, MCS wants to see improvements in monitoring.
MCS already has a red rating for this sea bass fishery in its Good Fish Guide (www.goodfishguide.org), advising all consumers and businesses to avoid buying bass until the fishery has recovered to a healthier state.
Mr Stone added: “With this new advice, the red rating will be maintained for the foreseeable future and those wishing to buy bass should take extra care to find out where their fish is from. Most bass in the UK are actually farmed and represent a better choice at the moment. There are one or two other stocks from further afield, but not enough is known about these populations to know if they represent a sustainable choice.”
Farmed sea bass is still an option for chefs and consumers. Those that are raised in recirculating systems are considered by MCS to be one of the most sustainable choices and are on the ‘fish to eat’ list. Those raised in open pens and certified by Global Gap are considered ‘occasional’ eats, with an MCS 3 rating, while those in open pens but without certification are classed as ‘very occasional’ eats, with an MCS 4 rating.