A dozen years ago I was sailing up the Thames on a fishing boat, with a fleet from around the UK’s coast behind me – it felt like a turning point. We were fighting for our fish and our seas and getting heard. The Fish Fight campaign challenged the wasteful and destructive discard practices that were endangering the UK’s fish populations and depleting our marine ecosystems. And we won victories – in 2013, the EU voted in a blanket ban on dumping dead fish back into the sea.
Now, of course, our political landscape has changed. Since Brexit, the government has repeatedly made lofty claims about setting a gold standard for fisheries management. Freed from the fetters of EU policies, the narrative goes, the UK could show the world how fish populations and the fishing industry could thrive in harmony.
Where is that gold standard today?
Five out of ten of the UK’s most important fish stocks are being overfshed or are in a “critical” state, this report shows.
Less than half of the 104 stocks analysed are of a healthy size, over a third are overfished.
Three populations, including cod from the west of Scotland, have reached a crisis so extreme that a total ban on all catches has been recommended by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.
Now, I will always extoll the virtues of a fat fillet of cod, battered, baked or in time-honoured orange breadcrumbs, but this isn’t only about the threat to what’s on our plates. These fish and other overfished stocks play a vital role in the balance of complex marine food webs, and cod are sustenance not just for fish-loving folk, but also for some of our most majestic ocean wildlife, from orca to minke whales.
The stark fact is that overfished stocks have one thing in common: they are on course for collapse.
If that is allowed to happen, the human livelihoods will go with them just as fast as the marine ecosystems they support. We must change our approach to fisheries management and rethink our relationship with the sea.
Today, destructive bottom trawling is allowed in 90% of UK offshore marine ‘protected’ areas, destroying key habitats vital to ocean health while making a mockery of the concept of ocean conservation.
Around the coast, local, lower-impact fishers, who could be thriving, are seeing their livelihoods dwindle as decades of overfishing by super-trawlers takes its heavy toll. Restoring and protecting these fish populations is even more urgent as the climate crisis escalates. Marine heatwaves are ripping through UK seas like wildfire through a forest, with scientists warning of mass mortality of ocean life. Species already under pressure from industrial over-exploitation may be more easily pushed beyond the limits of their resilience.
The solution to this problem is not complex. The UK government must urgently commit to setting catch quotas at strictly sustainable limits that are rigorously in line with scientific advice. The reckless habit of past decades, of bunging in an extra 20% or more, to keep the fishers sweet, cannot be allowed to continue.
Science that’s on the side of the fish is ultimately on the side of the fishers too. And for those fish stocks where data is missing, we must err on the side of caution, so that lack of scientific certainty is not used as an excuse for postponing protections for species we know are vulnerable.
As an ocean nation, our connection to the sea goes deep – our culture is steeped in brine, and we have the potential for fisheries that are abundant, profitable, sustainable, and offer all of us a taste of one the most fantastic foods we have. Yet our government’s marine policies and fish quotas are betraying that heritage to the point of destruction.
Until they step up to truly protect this precious resource, the fight for our fish goes on.
This is a foreword by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to the Oceana UK Taking Stock report, available here: https://uk.oceana.org/reports/taking-stock-2023/.