GOVERNMENT has failed to take their own scientific experts' advice for nearly 20 years to prevent the obliteration of cod stocks off Scotland in what has been described as a "national scandal".

It can be revealed that despite the advice of The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the world's oldest intergovernmental science organization which has expected no catches of cod off the west coast of Scotland since 2004 - it estimates that that there has been 43,504 tonnes either landed or discarded. Some conservationists believe that may be an understimate.

Meanwhile it has been confirmed to the Herald on Sunday that cod in the North Sea has lost its sustainability certification for a fourth year due to continuing worries about stock levels. The Herald on Sunday can reveal that despite its consistent advice to stop catching cod off the west coast, government has consistently set an allowable catch.

Conservationists have condemned government officials, including the Scottish Government for failing to do enough to protect cod stocks across Scotland.

There are an estimated 10,500 fish and chip shops across the UK serving up 167m fish and chip meals a year. And it is cod that is the fish that is mostly served up.

Fifty years ago, Scotland’s fleet was routinely catching over 4000 tonnes of cod on the west coast every year as part of a thriving industry.

But fish populations have become so low that scientists who advise governments have been advising a zero catch policy for cod on the west coast consistently for 18 years.

The latest ICES advice which states that there should be a zero catch of cod next year and in 2024 says that fishing pressure on the cod stock remains far too high while spawning stock is far too low.

"Stock structure remains an issue for cod," it said.

"Management measures taken so far have not resulted in a recovery of the stock."

The expert group indicated that grey seals may even play a part in impairing recovery as there are "significant" numbers and are "known to feed on cod among other species".

Analysis of the ICES's technical findings by the Scottish marine conservation charity Open Seas concludes that the adult population of cod off the west of Scotland was at its lowest in 2020.

It is estimated the west coast cod population has dropped by 92% since 1981.

The Herald:

Before the enactment of the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act in 1984, there was, since 1889, 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.

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

The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF) have said the the scrapping of the three-mile law was has contributed to the “complete collapse” of fish stocks along Scotland’s coasts.

They are pushing Holyrood to reinstate and expand on the 19th-century law by introduce a variation of the three-mile ban on trawling in certain areas.

Nick Underdown, head of campaigns with Open Seas said the decline of cod was a "national scandal", saying governments including the Scottish Government have not done enough to halt the decline.

He said the spawning stock of west coast had reached rock bottom

And he said that part of the problem is the result fishermen accidentally catching smaller cod while after shellfish.

"It’s a double whammy, both a biodiversity and economic disaster. We’ve lost a fish that was once plentiful in our seas, and was caught both commercially and recreationally and was hugely important in many coastal communities," he said.

"The Scottish Government never say there should be a sanction over the overfishing of our cod stocks.

"They want to keep the prawn fishermen happy. They should be kicking up hell.

"But for decades now officials and ministers from all governments have been mismanaging a public asset, ignoring the clear scientific advice to either reduce catches or stop catching cod altogether, when the signs of overfishing became clear.

"Over successive decades, governments have basically abandoned Scotland’s cod populations by allowing widespread bottom-trawling for prawns throughout the inshore waters, an area which provided vital fish nursery grounds. Bottom-trawling had been banned within three miles of shore until 1984, but removing this protection meant the nursery grounds were overfished and damaged."

He says the discarding of the extra catch of young cod was made illegal in 2019 - but its investigations show that the practice is continuing. And the allowable catch is factoring this in.

The Herald:

"There is now an opportunity to recover cod populations, but it requires good leadership," he said.

"To revive inshore fisheries and all the boats and jobs that go along with that, the starting point is to re-establish healthy fish populations. These are very testing times, and as food security rises up the agenda, our government should be doing all it can to recover our cod stocks, not keep them in a depleted state by giving the green light to more overfishing and wasteful bycatch.”

The new SCFF move comes after the Scottish Government won an appeal against a judge Lady Poole's ruling requiring it to reconsider a no-trawl scheme to protect Scotland's marine environment.

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.

The Skye pilot 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, including cod.

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

The new petition has been put forward by Alistair Bally Philp on behalf of the SCFF which says the removal of the three-mile limit has resulted in a 98% decline in fish landings from the Clyde area. They say this is "merely illustrative of the declines throughout the inshore".

They say less than 5% of the inshore is protected from "damaging trawl and dredge fisheries".

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) which keeps sustainability certificates for North Sea cod fisheries under review annually say they remain suspended since being first removed in 2019. That is despite the fact that a support plan was agreed for the North Sea which saw numbers beginning to recover. In 2017 it received an MSC "blue tick", meaning cod could be eaten "with a clear conscience".

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, said that cod was being "harvested unsustainably" and that North Sea cod stocks had plummeted to critical levels.

It recommended a 63% reduction to the available catch to just 10,457 tonnes and followed a 47% cut the previous year.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has said there is “no evidence” reinstating the three-mile limit around Scotland’s coastline “would improve sustainability or raise earnings”.

"The SFF has been working collaboratively with Marine Scotland in the designation and management of marine protected areas and if areas or features in inshore areas are found to need extra protection, there are well-established systems in place for their inclusion in the existing management frameworks, based on objective scientific evidence," said Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the SFF.

“The federation therefore believes there is no basis in the evidence for the sustainability claims."

She added: "It is widely recognised that the scientific stock assessment that generates catch advice for cod in our waters needs be revised. It is based on the distribution of fish several decades ago, and does not reflect what we know are changing distributions of fish in our seas, very likely related to the changing climate. Nor does it reflect what fishermen see on the fishing grounds.

"Industry has been pushing for this review to take place, and a very important symposium on cod is taking place in Scotland later this year, before ICES undertakes a benchmark review on cod in 2023," she said.

A Scottish Government spokesman said that the West of Scotland cod currently has a "low" Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and is "tightly managed as a restricted non-directed fishery".

The spokesman said: "In partnership with the EU, the Scottish Government has taken action to manage this stock and prevent targeting. We know that the cod stock in particular fluctuates, as is evident from the ICES advice for North Sea Cod which proposes substantial increases in quota for 2023."

The spokesman added: “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.

“Scotland’s seas and waters have a key role to play in contributing to the nation’s future economic prosperity, especially in remote, rural and island communities and we have always sought to deliver the best outcome for our fishing interests through securing sustainable catching opportunities. It is important to work within environmental limits, making sure fish stocks are managed sustainably and, in turn, providing a resource for future generations and safeguarding the diversity of the marine ecosystem.

“Negotiations for setting catch limits and quotas take full account of sustainability principles, are informed by high quality science, and take account of wider considerations such as socio-economic implications.

“To enhance protection of the marine environment, earlier this year we published our draft future catching policy for consultation. This policy sets out a range of measures to ensure that fishing activity within Scottish waters is operating sustainably and responsibly. We are also committed to introducing management measures for the Marine Protected Area network and introducing Highly Protected Marine Areas.”