By Bernadette Clarke, Good Fish Guide Programme Manager, Marine Conservation Society (MCS)
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is extremely concerned about the future of the sea bass stock around the UK. The stock is in decline and the number of young fish joining or recruiting to the fishery at depressingly low levels.
Bass or seabass belongs to a family of spiny-finned fish called Moronidae, which are closely related to groupers. It is a long-lived and slow growing species – up to 30 years of age. Male bass mature at 31-35cm (aged 3-6 years) and females mature at 40-45cm (aged 5-8 years). Once mature, bass may migrate within UK coastal waters and occasionally further offshore.
The combination of slow growth, late maturity, and the fact they come together or aggregate to spawn and also have a tendency to return to the same place, known as site fidelity, increase the vulnerability of seabass to over-exploitation and localised depletion.
Historically, commercial seabass landings were minimal and the species was mainly the quarry of recreational anglers, but since the 1970s the commercial catch has escalated and by mid 1990s was believed to equal the recreational take.
The combined fishing pressure from commercial and recreational fishing is too high and above the recommended level. Commercial landings in 2013 were estimated at 4,132t, with total annual removals for the recreational sector estimated at 1,500t. This situation, combined with increasing fishing pressure is causing the stock to decline rapidly.
Scientific advice is to reduce fishing pressure by 80% to prevent the spawning stock biomass (SSB) declining to such an extent that the stock’s ability to rebuild itself becomes impaired. ICES advice for catches in 2015 was that total landings, from both commercial and recreational sectors, should be no more than 1,155t. This implies almost five times the amount of fish currently advised is being removed from the stock.
Scientific advice for catches in 2016 is to further reduce (by 47%) total landings (commercial and recreational) to no more than 541 tonnes.
In 2014 scientists advised that there needed to be an 80% reduction in fishing pressure to ensure the future of the stock. At the end of 2015 a 6 month moratorium was proposed by the EU Commission for 2016 for all sectors of the industry. However this proposal was watered down by the Council of Ministers and exemptions introduced to allow fishing to continue during this period.
Scientific advice is to further reduce fishing pressure in 2016 to prevent the stock declining. The reality is if fishing continues to ignore scientific advice we could see this iconic and popular species disappearing from our plates.
If restaurants want to continue serving seabass to their customers the advice from the MCS is to only buy onshore farmed seabass. Wild stocks are overfished, and trawling impacts on spawning fish and is responsible for bycatch of marine mammals.
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