West of Scotland cod stocks are at critical levels. Fish that are “household names” are being overfished. In the face of a “shocking decline” in some UK fish stocks, a new report by Oceana UK is calling for government to follow scientific advice in setting catch levels.

Director of Oceana UK, Hugo Tagholm,  said: “This report, Taking Stock, shows the critical fragility and state of our seas. People forget that fishing is an extractive industry and at the moment it is being badly managed across the country.

"We’re not following the right advice. The evidence is clear that many of our key fish populations are being overfished or taken to the brink of collapse.”

Chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, 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.”

Scientific advice, the report says, has not been followed for four of the five worst-performing stocks – Celtic Sea cod, West of Scotland cod, Irish Sea whiting and North East Atlantic horse mackerel - which were set higher than scientific advice for sustainability.

Three of these fish stocks, it says, 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).

Particularly worrying is the critical state of West of Scotland cod. In spite of the fact that it has been acknowledged for decades that this stock is in trouble, and ICES has recommended no catches of cod off the west coast of Scotland since 2004, in 2021, 786 tonnes of this fish were caught as by-catch – compare with none of Irish Sea Whiting or Celtic Sea cod.

Mr Tagholm said: “This is a UK report, but Scotland has our biggest fishery, so this is very Scottish at its heart – it's where most of the fishing activity happens in this country."

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But West of Scotland cod are not the only fish that are in trouble. The report also looks at the top 10 stocks landed in greatest volumes by UK vessels, and finds that five of these are “being overfished or their population size is critically low.”

These include the familiar mackerel (North East Atlantic mackerel), as well as the North East Atlantic blue whiting, North Sea anglerfish, North Sea cod, Eastern English Channel king scallops.

The majority of mackerel, the fish which dominates UK landings from UK waters, is caught by the Scottish fleet. However, though stocks are still rated as healthy, North East Atlantic mackerel, the report notes,  is now classified as overfished because of a downturn in numbers, and total allowable catch, is being set above scientific advice.

Many of the over-exploited fish are, Tagholm said, familiar and loved. “The mackerel, the cod, the scallop, are species that are staples in people’s diets. They are high street names and these are fish that are being taken to the brink because the government is not following scientific advice. We’re not following the right guidelines to deliver gold standard fisheries."

The Herald: Supertrawler in northern North SeaSupertrawler in northern North Sea. Image: Suzanne Plunkett/Oceana

Nevertheless, some of the top 10 stocks are both healthy and sustainably fished. “These stocks,“ the report says, “are North Sea herring, haddock, whiting, saithe and Nephrops.”

Nevertheless some of the top 10 stocks are both healthy and sustainably fished. “These stocks,“ the report says, “are North Sea herring, haddock, whiting, saithe  and Nephrops.” 

42% of stocks in the West of Scotland, it observed, are overfished. But, at the same time, 62% of stocks that are partially or fully located in the West of Scotland have healthy stock status and it had the fewest stocks in critical condition.. 

Taking Stock also highlights the fact that whilst almost 80% of the fleet are small-scale fishers (with boats of 10m and under), they have only 2% of the quota, and the Scottish fleet has the highest proportion of large vessels over 10metres. 

“Big industrial fishing,” said Mr Tagholm, “is exploiting the sea far too quickly and taking away the livelihoods of those low-impact, sustainable fishing communities that operate in more harmony with the sea.” 

Mr Tagholm also acknowledged the intensity of the controversy around Scottish Government Highly Protected Marine Area proposals - but spoke of the need for better protection for our seas.  

He said: “When it comes down to HPMAs, we understand the concerns of local communities but we need to make sure those people are engaged and listened-to more as we implement fuller protections for parts of our oceans – to allow marine life to bounce back and sustain those communities in the long run. We need to make sure that the Scottish Government and the UK Government consults the people potentially most impacted by these changes.” 

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “This report is a naïve assessment based on only partial knowledge and limited understanding of fisheries science and management.

“It is routine for fish stocks to fluctuate. Increases and decreases in scientific advice between years are absolutely normal. Scientific advice also contains margins of error. These and other factors are taken into account by fisheries managers in setting total allowable catches (TACs). If TACs are set that exceed scientific advice, then that will have been carefully considered by fisheries managers within governments. We are fortunate in Scotland in having very well managed fisheries.

“Fisheries managers in the UK set quotas for mackerel based on ICES scientific advice, and the Scottish fleet fishes within these limits. Some other countries involved in the mackerel fishery do exceed limits, but we do not.

“Scientists now acknowledge that there is no such thing as a West of Scotland cod stock. We have a northern shelf cod stock that covers the North Sea and West of Scotland, and ICES advice due to be published very soon is expected to show that it is in good health. It will be evident that science is catching up with what fishermen have been saying for years – that cod are abundant in Scottish waters and that the stock is healthy. 

“Fisheries managers also have to make decisions that translate into the real world. If the scientific advice for one stock in a mixed fishery is for zero TAC, managers may have to set a small quota to account for bycatch – otherwise they risk closing a whole fishery where other stocks may be very abundant. When this happened on the West of Scotland, industry also took action through working with scientists to develop tools for ‘real time reporting’ that allowed fishing boats to avoid certain areas.

“It's also worth noting that the Scottish Government has a national indicator of the percentage of fish stocks fished sustainably. In 2020, an estimated 69 per cent of commercial fish stocks were fished at sustainable levels in Scottish waters. This represents an increase of 35 percentage points from 2000. The percentage fished sustainably in 2020 is the highest level recorded since this data collection began (1991) and demonstrates the ongoing recovery of the commercial fish stocks."

Totall Allowable catches (TACs) are agreed through annual negotiations between the UK and the EU and the EU and Norway and the Scottish Government's approach to negotiations on TAC limits is that they should "be underpinned by the best available scientific information".

However, there are times when a TAC is set above or below the headline scientific advice. Amongst these is when the advised levels will exacerbate a choke in the fishery based on an unavoidable bycatch.  

A Scottish Government spokesperson said:  “We take our responsibility to balance the competing pressures on the marine environment seriously and the Scottish Government’s management of its fisheries is well respected internationally.

“We continue to take action to protect our marine environment and engage with our fishing industry. Scotland’s world-renowned seafood sector supports vital jobs across our economy, especially in coastal and island communities. Government, the industry and communities all have a shared interest to ensure that both Scotland’s fishing industry and our marine environment can thrive sustainably.”