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Half of the UK’s key fish populations are overfished or in a critical state

New report from Oceana demands overhaul of government catch limits

Press Release Date: September 13, 2023



Daisy Brickhill | email: dbrickhill@oceana.org

  • Half of the ‘top 10’ UK fish stocks are overfished or have been reduced to a critically low size.
  • Many cod populations are in crisis, pushing this iconic British fish towards collapse.
  • Government-set catch limits that exceed scientific advice are driving these fish populations into decline.
Overfishing is leading endangering ocean wildlife and the fishing industry

Half of the ‘top 10’ fish stocks on which the UK fishing industry relies are overfished or their population size is critically low, a new report from Oceana has found. Of the wider total of 104 stocks analysed in the ‘Taking Stock’ report, over a third are being overfished and a quarter have been depleted to critically low population sizes.

This alarming situation is being driven by the government setting catch limits too high – exceeding scientific advice1. To prevent the collapse of these populations and safeguard ocean wildlife, coastal communities and the fishing industry itself, the government must urgently commit to setting all catch limits in line with the science, Oceana says.

The UK fishing industry relies heavily on 10 key stocks that are landed by British boats in the greatest volumes. Yet, five of these are either being overfished, like mackerel, or have reached a critically low population size, like North Sea cod.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, chef and campaigner who wrote the foreword to the report, said: “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. Our government needs to step up today to prevent the UK from losing its fish and starving its seas.”

The Taking Stock report examined a total of 104 populations – the majority of UK commercial fish stocks. Over a third of these are being overfished (34%) and only 45% are sustainably fished: the rest could not be assessed because of lack of data.

Along with fishing pressure, the report assessed population size, revealing that less than half (41%) of UK fish populations are of a healthy size and a quarter (25%) are in a critical condition. The health of the remaining populations could not be determined due to lack of data, leaving them at greater risk of overfishing. 

Hugo Tagholm, Director of Oceana in the UK, said: “Our government claims to be striving for a ‘gold standard’ in fisheries management. Yet they continue to ignore the science and rubber-stamp the rampant exploitation of our seas. This not only puts fish populations at risk, but also everything that relies on them, including marine wildlife and the fishing industry itself. It is time for the UK to show political leadership and commit to catch limits in line with the science and a clear and ambitious strategy to end overfishing.”

Dr Annette Broderick, Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Exeter, commented: “Oceana’s Taking Stock report clearly demonstrates the dire state of UK fish stocks. These exploited fish populations play an integral role in marine ecosystems, the health of the ocean and the future of the UK’s fishing industry. Time is running out to conserve vulnerable marine life. The UK government must follow scientific guidance and set fishing quotas within the limits of sustainability.”

Zero catches are advised for multiple stocks in crisis.

The report also considered the top five best (sustainably fished and healthy size) and worst (overfished and low size) managed stocks.

Three of the five worst managed populations are in such a state of crisis that a total ban on all catches is advised by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). These populations – Celtic Sea cod, West of Scotland cod and Irish Sea whiting – are frequently caught as bycatch when fishers are targeting other commercial species.

The five best managed populations are typically caught in comparatively small quantities and are of relatively low economic value.

Sustainable catch limits mean healthier populations.

The problem, the report says, is that the government regularly sets catch limits higher than scientific advice, leading to overfishing and low populations sizes. For instance, for the five best managed stocks, catch limits for 2020-2023 were mainly set in line with ICES scientific advice. However, for four of the five worst performing populations, catch limits were set far higher than scientists advise to prevent stocks collapsing.

Oceana is calling for the government to urgently commit to setting catch quotas in line with ICES scientific advice at sustainable limits.


Read the report.

About the Taking Stock report

  1. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is the source of the best available scientific advice for setting catch limits in the UK. For each stock, ICES provides advice based on delivering the maximum sustainable yield, where there is enough data. If data are limited, the advice is based on the precautionary approach. Precautionary advice allows fisheries managers and policymakers to steer clear of what is most likely an unsustainable situation, while the current situation is unclear.  More information can be found here.
  2. Less than half (41%) of the 104 stocks analysed were deemed to be of a healthy size, and 25% were in a critical condition. The health of the remaining 34% could not be determined due to lack of data, leaving them at greater risk of overfishing. As well as stock size, the analysis assessed fishing pressure, revealing that 34% of the audited stocks were being overfished and only 45% were sustainably fished. Another 21% could not be assessed because of lack of data.