Bass stocks are collapsing

Recent scientific evidence shows that UK bass stocks are collapsing.

BASS demands urgent government action

John Leballeur, Chairman of the BASS Restoration Project team has stated that in over 20 years of bass sampling, he has never seen a period when the numbers of young bass have been so low, for so long.

Shocked by the emerging evidence, the Society has written to Jonathan Shaw MP, Fisheries Minister (see below), demanding urgent measures to halt the disastrous collapse. The Society has requested, that both the recreational and commercial bass fisheries are closed during the 3 month breeding season, when spawning congregations of bass are particularly vulnerable. BASS have suggested the establishment of designated Marine Protection Areas to protect bass stocks.

Bass were recommended as a species to be regarded as ‘recreational only’, in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit ‘Net Benefits’ report (2004).

Last year, when he cancelled measures designed to protect the species, bass were described by the current Fisheries Minister as, ‘an important displacement species’ for the hard pressed commercial fishing industry, despite the superior value of the UK recreational bass fishery.

Even some commercial fishermen have since expressed concerns at the present unsustainable level of exploitation.

In his letter to the Minister, as well as offering the new evidence, John Leballeur has pointed out to the Minister, that he now faces a catastrophe on ‘his watch’, as Fisheries Minister, unless he acts with urgency, to bring in effective measures to protect the species.

Background

Since 1984, members of BASS have collected information each year from estuaries, such as the Tamar, on the number of juvenile bass present. The young fish are caught in nets, from the same place, at the same time of the year, to measure abundance and to estimate how healthy the bass populations will be in future years.

A variety of factors govern how many young bass survive, including winter estuary water temperature, natural predation and food availability. Cold winters can significantly decrease the survival chances of young fish.

The numbers of young fish captured each year naturally fluctuate. In some years the numbers of young bass are low, whilst in others, it can be high. In general, where there are large numbers of young bass caught, it indicates that there will be a lot more fish maturing seven years later. Often these years of high abundance are reflected in later years by an increased abundance of larger bass caught from coastal waters.

In the period 1984-1986 the populations of young bass recorded from estuaries was very low, due to very cold winters. In response to this the government introduced measures to protect bass to keep populations healthy.

Between 1986-2006 the numbers of young bass recorded from the Tamar have fluctuated each year. However, since 2000 the netting samples from this west country estuary have shown a very worrying continual downward trend.

Between 1985 and 2006 there were 11 years, when the numbers of young bass recorded each year were below average. Of most concern is that five of these poor years all fell between 2000-2006. Since 1984, when recording first began, there has not been another period when the numbers of young bass in the Tamar samples have been so low, for so many years, in such a short period.

John Leballeur of BASS, who co-ordinates the sampling of young bass, is very worried about what these results mean:

“In over 20 years of bass sampling I have never seen a period, when the numbers of young bass have been so low for so long. With warmer winters giving ideal conditions for the survival of young bass and Defra telling us that the spawning stock is healthy, we should be seeing healthy juvenile populations. I am very concerned that what we may be seeing, are the first signs that adult spawning bass from the Western Approaches and from autumn inshore marks, have been over fished significantly, reducing the number available to spawn and sustain healthy populations in south coast estuaries. Inshore fisherman, who have run out of quota species, have now upped their effort on bass, which is also not helping matters.

Also, I believe that the biomass has in fact halved in recent years and not doubled, as Jonathon Shaw MP was advised, in the recent bass mls decision.
A consequence of the poor recruitment will be that, in a short time, the stock will decline further and catches by the much-increased fleet that fish for bass, will exacerbate this. The fishery will then become uneconomical, or collapse, as has been seen, with so many other stocks of fish.

I ask the Fisheries Minister to consider a closure in the breeding season, for all stakeholders, commencing in February 2009 for three months of each year, so as to address the balance. I also ask, that he make the main offshore bass fishery area a Marine Protected Area, to run parallel with the closed season. The breeding stock and cetaceans would be protected during the main reproduction cycle. All stakeholders would benefit by this precautionary measure and we would not witness the collapse in the bass fishery some years down the line. Another benefit would be the protection of cetaceans that have shown unacceptable losses due to this fishery.

Alarm bells are ringing loud and clear and the pre-recruitment survey indices are an accurate barometer of the future spawning stock.”

Open Letter to Jonathan Shaw MP, Fisheries Minister, dated 15 May 2008

Dear Jonathan Shaw

Bass recruitment failure

When you took office, you inherited the postponed decision from your predecessor, Ben Bradshaw MP, of the bass mls (minimum landing size).

After a long drawn out consultation, which received over 2800 responses, of which 85% were in favour of increasing to 45 cms, this was diluted down to 40 cm , as a result of pressure from the commercial < 10m catching sector whilst ignoring RSA’s desire for more and bigger fish.

You took the opportunity of meeting both the commercial catching sector and RSA before making the decision not to increase the MLS. You were advised that the bass biomass had doubled since the 1980s and the fishery was being fished sustainably. You stated that you did not want any collapse whilst ‘on your watch’. However, there is a danger that in the English Channel, this may soon be the case. I have enclosed two CEFAS documents; one is a graph displaying the bass pre-recruit index for the Solent, Thames and Tamar of both ‘0’ group and ‘1’ year old bass sampling survey results, together with the worked up data from the named locations.

On examining the recruitment indices for the period 1989-1999 and also from 2000 until last year.

Solent
1989-1999 = 1.42 average
2000-2005 = 0.60 * There is no up to date survey information for the years 2006 or 2007

Tamar
1989-1999 = 1.22 ‘0’ Groups 1989-1999 = 1.34 ‘1 yr olds’
2000-2007 = 0.76 ” 2000-2007 = 0.87″

Thames
2000-2007 average 1.45 This is a relative new sampling site, when compared to the Solent & Tamar, whose records commenced in 1977 & 1984 respectively.

The Tamar clearly shows the failure of the recruitment for the years of 2005-2006 and 2007, which is also indicated by the Solent provisional figures and graphs, which samples 2 yr old fish and above. These figures suggest the beginning of a decline for the Solent, which is two years behind the up to date sampling data of the Tamar. These figures clearly demonstrate that recruitment has halved since the 1990’s.

The last time we witnessed these figures and circumstances was in 1985-1986-1987, when MAFF immediately implemented the precautionary approach and increased the MLS and introduced the nursery area legislation.

We have had no up to date landing figures from IFREMER, France regarding the winter offshore fishery for a number of years, since the last ICES bass conference study in 2004, which concluded that fishing effort should be capped to the year 2000 and average for the preceding five years. This has never been implemented and effort has significantly increased since. Global warming has contributed to warmer winters and higher sea temperatures around our shores for some time now, yet we are witnessing the failure of the recruitment year classes in the English Channel and Western Approaches at a time when, according to scientists, we should be seeing strong broods.

It is now very obvious that the increase in fishing effort and the reduction of the breeding stock is now seriously contributing to this state of affairs. Also, I believe that the biomass has in fact halved in recent years and not doubled, as you were advised. A consequence of the poor recruitment will be that, in a short time, the stock will decline further and catches by the much-increased fleet that fish for bass, will exacerbate this. The fishery will then become uneconomical, or collapse, as has been seen with so many other stocks of fish.

I ask you to consider a closure in the breeding season for all stakeholders commencing in February 2009, for three months of each year, so as to address the balance and also make the main offshore bass fishery area, a Marine Protected Area, to run parallel with the closed season. The breeding stock would be protected during the main reproduction cycle. All stakeholders would benefit by this precautionary measure and we would not witness the collapse in the bass fishery some years down the line. Another benefit would be the protection of cetaceans that have shown unacceptable losses due to this fishery.

Alarm bells are ringing loud and clear and the pre-recruitment survey indices are an accurate barometer of the future spawning stock. You indicated at our first meeting, that whilst you are on watch you do not want any catastrophes. Please treat this very seriously and urgently consider the above recommendations so as to address the last three years of recruitment collapse of bass.

I look forward to your speedy reply upon this matter.

Yours sincerely

John Leballeur
Chairman
BASS Restoration Project team.