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April 10, 2024

UK fishing catch limits set too high yet again: Time for a plan

Just 46% of key fishing catch limits for 2024 were set at sustainable levels, analysis from the government’s own fisheries advisers, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), has indicated today. While this marks a slight improvement on last year, once again, the majority of UK fishing limits for 2024 fail to meet the recommendations of the independent scientific body, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), Cefas has found.

While dispiriting, this is not surprising: For years, the government has buried its head in the sand and made short-term decisions with little overarching strategy. Last year 57% of the total allowable catches were set higher than advised by ICES – this marked the third year in a row that at least half of catch limits for stocks shared with the EU were set above scientific advice.

All this has consequences. Half of the UK’s 10 most important fish populations are already overfished or in a ‘critical’ state. If they continue to be overexploited year after year, these stocks will ultimately collapse. This would deal yet another brutal blow to an already vastly diminished marine environment – and also to a struggling fishing industry.

Cefas has confirmed what we had feared. Instead of making the hard but necessary decision to set lower catch limits to allow fish populations to replenish, ministers once again bowed to pressure and rubberstamped the ongoing degradation of the natural world by sanctioning overfishing, mostly by large industrial operators while lower-impact coastal fishers struggle to make ends meet.

Allowing our shared seas to be degraded in pursuit of profit for a few is not only a dereliction of our government’s duty to us all – but also marks a dispiriting departure from its ambitious promises of just a few years ago. The UK Government celebrated our departure from the EU as an opportunity to ‘take back control of our waters’ and to deliver world leadership in fisheries management with a new system of Fisheries Management Plans, intended to manage UK fish populations sustainably.

Four years later, while some progress has been made in closing sandeel fisheries, the UK’s so-called Brexit freedoms has delivered little in the way of meaningful action to end overfishing. Just five Fisheries Management Plans are in place so far, and these lack the specific, timebound measures needed to rebuild our fish populations. Over a third of 104 stocks analysed by Oceana are being overfished and just 45% are being sustainably fished – the remainder could not even be assessed due to a lack of data.

Cefas’ findings must serve as a wake-up call to the government. It is clear that we are a long way from world-leading. Instead of slow, piecemeal action and hoping for the best, we are calling on the UK Government to set out an urgent and comprehensive strategy to end overfishing by setting catch limits in line with scientific advice, supporting a just transition away from destructive fishing, and allocating fishing opportunities both fairly and sustainably.

The UK’s current approach to fisheries management has us on a fast track to empty seas and a defunct fishing industry – it’s time for a proper plan and real progress.