North Sea cod, one of Britain's favourite fish, has lost its sustainability certification for a third year due to deep worries about stock levels, leading to concerns about whether enough is being done to protect Scotland's marine environment, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

UK and Scottish ministers have come under fire over a failure to properly police and protect Scottish waters as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) confirmed that certificates for North Sea cod fisheries have remained suspended this year as concerns remain that stocks are below "safe biological level".

UK and Scottish ministers have come under fire for an "ignoring" of official advice over the state of cod by agreeing with the EU and Norway to a 10% cut in the total allowable catch this year to 15,903 tonnes in its first year as an independent coastal state.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), the world's oldest intergovernmental science organisation which advises nations on stocks said there should have been a 16.5% cut from 17,670 tonnes to 14,755 tonnes as the state of cod was described as being at a "critical level" with fishing pressure too high.

The UK government says that throughout it has pressed for catch limits to be "set sustainably" to ensure the long-term future of the fisheries industry.

The Herald on Sunday can reveal that the Ices is seeking an ever further cut for next year to 14,276 tonnes.

It comes as Scottish ministers forge ahead this month with a fight against a judge's demand to reconsider a no-trawl scheme to help protect Scotland's marine environment, including cod stocks.

In a landmark legal judgement, the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) won a court challenge over the "right to trawl" in Scotland's inshore waters which was expected to have a marked bearing in fishing rights across the country.

It has emerged that ministers will fight the decision in court next month and creel fishermen marine campaigners are furious that it has caused a major delay in moves to a maintain a healthy environment for fish.

There are estimated to be fewer spawning cod in the North Sea than ever before - 37,912 tonnes of cod, compared to more than 200,000 tonnes in the 1970s. The stock had recovered to 85,860 tonnes in 2016.

A cod support plan was agreed for the North Sea which saw numbers beginning to recover and in 2017 it received an MSC "blue tick", meaning cod could be eaten "with a clear conscience".

But that was removed in 2019 with the MSC saying the suspension was "devastating" but that stock levels were "worrying".

Now it has been confirmed that despite efforts to revive cod, and after further a further assessment, the suspension has remained for a third year.

An MSC source said: "The core reason for the suspension not being lifted is due to the stock status."

The fish had been considered under threat for more than a decade after stocks were said to have fallen to about 40,000 tonnes in 2006.

A 2019 analysis by the Ices, which advises nations on fish stocks, said that cod was being "harvested unsustainably" and that North Sea cod stocks had plummeted to critical levels.

The Herald:

It recommended a 63% reduction to the available catch to just 10,457 tonnes and followed a 47% cut last year. Now the ICES is recommending a further cut in the North Sea cod quota next year - which is being "bitterly contested" by the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA).

A discard ban has been being partly blamed which increases the amount of cod fishermen can catch but forces them to land it.

Until the change, around 20% of fish caught was thrown back into the sea dead.

Nick Underdown, head of campaigns with the Scottish marine conservation charity Open Seas said: “People want to eat cod with a clear conscience, but sadly it is no surprise that MSC have continued to suspend their certification of the North Sea cod fishery. This is a huge cause for concern.

"The North Sea cod fishery is in a Fishery Improvement Project and yet overfishing continues through the hidden problem of bycatch, which means that cod continue to be discarded at sea, unreported.

"This issue is damaging the environment and reputation of our seafood industry and requires urgent leadership.

"The vessel monitoring system for the trawl fleet is simply not fit for purpose and any recovery plan is unlikely to work unless Remote Electronic Monitoring is rolled out across the fleet.

"Everyone would like to see a booming, well-regulated cod fishery in the North Sea, and the population will rebound if we start safeguarding and recovering the essential fish habitats where cod spawn and mature.

"In the meantime, the Scottish Government needs to prioritise tackling the hidden problem of bycatch and discarding which is sadly driving overfishing. A proportion of bycaught cod is not counted against quota and leads to a kind of 'hyper overfishing' which is happening outside of the normal fisheries management framework.”

The Scottish Creel Fishermen's Federation have meanwhile slammed ministers for continuing to insist that a proposed pilot no-trawl scheme "would serve no practical purpose" as it seeks go overturn a ruling from Lady Poole to reconsider the project.

Alistair Sinclair, national co-ordinator of the Scottish Creel Fishermen's Federation (SCFF) said: "They are bereft of any any meaningful change with what goes on in inshore water just now. "

The fishermen argued in a judicial review that the decision to reject a pilot scheme in the Inner Sound off the Isle of Skye was unlawful because the Scottish Government only took into account opposition and did not properly assess the proposal - including examining benefits and the wider issues of inshore fisheries management.

Lady Poole agreed and after admitting being "surprised" at the Scottish Government's position on her judgement she ruled: "It follows from the court’s findings and orders that a reassessment should be carried out by the respondent.

The case was brought on the basis that the Scottish Government rejected the pilot because of the objections which were mainly from the trawler fishing communities instead of applying their own reasoned consideration.

Lady Poole, one of the newest Court of Session and High Court judges ruled in the SCFF's favour saying that ministers had acted "unlawfully" and that it is now entitled to expect the plan is "properly" reconsidered "with an open mind".

The fishermen sought an legal order forcing a review of the proposals to separate mobile and static fishing in the Inner Sound after resistance from Scottish ministers, despite Lady Poole's ruling.

The Herald:

And Lady Poole had warned ministers that she would issue the order if the matter was not sorted out saying she was "surprised" by the ministers' position after her judgement.

At the core of the case is the Skye pilot that came amidst mounting evidence that the use of trawled fishing gear in the inshore caused widespread ecological damage including significant declines in the diversity and size of commercial fish species.

The pilot was designed to test the environmental and economic benefits of creating ‘trawl free’ potting zones.

Before the enactment of the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act in 1984, there was, since 1885, a ban of bottom trawling within three miles of the coast providing “coastal fringe of largely undisturbed marine life”.

The prohibition was removed largely because trawling had led to an increased depletion of off-shore stocks and the mobile fishing sector - large trawlers operating in the area – wished to move inshore.

Mobile fishing, through trawling and dredging, can often come into conflict with static methods.

Creel fishermen - who lay their pots of the seabed before returning days later to empty them - say thousands of pounds worth of gear can be lost when a fishing boat drags its nets through an area.

And the SCFF said that since the ban there has been a significant and growing body of evidence showing that the decision to open up the inshore to trawling has been disastrous both environmentally and economically.

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “The Scottish fishing industry is committed to fishing sustainably to protect stocks for future generations. “But North Sea cod is an example where fisheries science is not keeping pace with the changing distribution of fish stocks. The model on which Ices advice is based looks at the whole of the North Sea, using reference points from around 40 years ago, which don’t reflect the conditions seen today. “There is strong evidence that North Sea cod are moving northwards, probably in response to warming sea temperatures, and the model also fails to deal with what is a complex stock structure in the North Sea. “Cod are still abundant in the northern North Sea where our fleet fishes, but the Ices advice is based on the whole of the North Sea, which influences their catch advice. “Ices itself recognises these problems with the methods used, and knows that they need to be improved.”

A UK Government spokesman said: “The UK’s approach in annual fisheries negotiations is guided by our desire to improve the sustainability of fish stocks within UK waters.

“We will look to take management decisions founded on the best available evidence. This is consistent with the shared UK fisheries objectives set out in the Fisheries Act 2020.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The decision on the total allowable catch was taken during three-party negotiations with the UK, EU and Norway, having been agreed by all three parties, based on scientific evidence and an understanding of the complexities of mixed fisheries in the North Sea.

“As normal, this year there are a range of catch options for cod to consider, although our position is that any decisions taken should be based on the best available evidence and have sustainability at its heart.”