Bye Bye Bass . . .

Bob Cox tells the truth about our bass fisheries in Total Sea Fishing’s Weekly blog.

The bass is the nation’s favourite sporting sea fish, but unless drastic measures are taken then the chances of landing one of these hard-fighting but slow-growing fish in the future will be extremely slim.

In fact I would go as far to say that even if the size-limit rules or the locations where commercial and anglers are allowed to fish were changed overnight, it could still take an agonising 15 years before bass stocks are back on an even keel.

Many sea anglers are currently given a false impression when it comes to the state of bass stocks because the late 1980s to the early 2000s happened to be great spawning years, but I fear that this is all about to change and the decline of this magnificent species will start to plummet.

And when, not if, stocks of bass around our shores hit an all-time low, the finger of blame can be pointed firmly at DEFRA, the Government department charged with managing our fish stocks.

For years DEFRA ignored anglers’ warnings, claiming that bass could not be managed in the same way as other fish stocks but needed a different approach, which it called a recruitment fishery. This relies on a succession of good breeding years to top up the stock year on year. DEFRA thought that this model would allow commercial fishermen to continue to take a crop of bass at 36 centimetres long, a size so small that none of the fish landed has ever had a chance to breed.

At first glance the scheme worked for DEFRA and the commercial boys but more by luck than judgement because the climate favoured good bass spawning between 1989 and 2006 and these good years helped to prop up the bass fishery – that had already started to wobble – for a bit longer. Now the climate has changed, DEFRA’s luck has finally run out and our bass fishing is going rapidly downhill.

Throughout the 1990s and continuing into the early 2000s there was a succession of good spawning years for bass and these years have provided us with the boom in bass fishing that we have enjoyed since then. DEFRA and the scientists who advise the organisation hoped that these conditions would continue and that climate change would perhaps save the day, while masking the fact that commercial fishing for bass was constantly increasing over this period.

They were wrong, because DEFRA’s model failed to ensure that there were any buffer stocks of large mature fish to fall back on in case the climate reverted to the UK norm – which it has in recent years. The bass that anglers fish for today were spawned years ago. A 36cm fish is about four years old, while a 57cm fish weighing 2kg is around 10 years old. The reality is that from now until 2018/2020 our bass fishing will decline, as the poor year classes of recent years start to reflect in our catches and the bigger bass born years ago thin out. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this hot summer will even things up because it won’t. Last winter was one of the coldest on record, followed by a very chilly spring, so apart from a few late spawners there will be very few 2013 year-class bass to top up the stocks.

The Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society (BASS), the bass anglers’ interest group, has been warning DEFRA for well over 20 years that the first crop of bass should only be taken at around 55 centimetres. This would leave a stock of sexually mature fish available to prop up the stock should there be a succession of bad or failed year classes of fish.

DEFRA paid for surveys to be carried out every year around the UK coast to assess the relative abundance of each year’s new crop of young bass. This allowed for an assessment of what the likely future bass stocks would be a few years down the line, but these surveys were cancelled a few years ago and the organisation that should be looking after our interests has been flying blind ever since.

Didn’t Listen
BASS also carried out its own surveys of young fish, and in 2007 its chairman at the time – the late John Leballeur – warned DEFRA that findings showed an alarming decline in bass recruitment in all its survey data. DEFRA ignored the threat and did nothing. Since then a succession of poor bass-spawning years have occurred and the damage of these years to the bass fishery will prove impossible to rectify for years to come… if at all. What is so vexing is that the threat could have been reduced substantially had DEFRA been on the ball instead of repeatedly ignoring calls for effective action to be taken to counter the risks.

No Replacements…
DEFRA and its adviser, the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), have at last smelled the coffee although I’m not sure that they have fully woken up. They are aware that something is wrong but, unfortunately, the data they are relying on is at least three years behind what is actually happening.
ICES is advising that fishing effort should be cut by 20 per cent by 2014 but if it had the up-to-date information that we have then the organisation would realise that this sort of cut is going to happen naturally because the number of small bass (36cm to 45cm) that ICES believes is available to inshore fishermen is not as big as it should be due to the impact of recent bad spawning years on the chain of recruitment. If the fish aren’t there then they can’t be caught and commercial landings will be down. So the 20 per cent cut isn’t going to help stocks and fishing effort will continue to be too high.

The Future?
So what is the future of bass angling? Over the next few years there will be far fewer school bass around, although some areas will experience anomalies – like those that have power stations supplying warm-water outfalls – but nationally there will be a decline. For the immediate future there will naturally be larger bass to be caught, especially from boats, and these fish will be survivors of the last good bass-spawning years of around a decade ago and will be 4lb to 5lb by next year.
But, as the commercial fishing takes its toll, both inshore and offshore, numbers will decrease and by about 2018 bass will be hard to find – it will be far more difficult than it is now.

US Measures
So what would be good fishery management at this point? Following America’s model would be a great step in the right direction. When a similar situation was apparent in the US with its striped bass population, a moratorium was declared that totally outlawed any bass being killed – or even landed. These stringent measures were taken in order to ensure that the maximum stock of mature fish was left alone to repopulate the seas… and it has worked beautifully.

Long Odds
The only way we can climb out of the hole into which DEFRA has put us is if we get a succession of two mild winters, followed by two mild springs and summers followed by another mild winter – in other words, a prolonged period of mild weather extending over several years, starting in 2015 for example. As a result we would get a good spawning year in 2018, with the 2018 crop of bass not reaching 36 to 40 centimetres for another four to five years, and they wouldn’t reach 2kg in weight until 2028. That’s a very long sentence for bass anglers and some very substantial and extended losses for the fishing-tackle trade to juggle with. Bass angling seems to account for roughly 30 per cent of sea angling expenditure – doubtless Richard Benyon, the Fisheries Minister, will soon be looking into the small matter of compensating the tackle trade for its losses!

Questions Answered?
TSF put the following questions to DEFRA and the minister:
“The subject is the impending collapse of the UK bass fishery. We would like to ask DEFRA for any details of any upcoming changes to management of the bass fishery, plus what restoration programme DEFRA may be putting in place.”

The reply does not fill me with huge confidence and shows little understanding of the reality. Richard Benyon’s reply was: “It is clear that the European bass levels are unacceptably low and action must be taken to reverse the decline. I am pushing for EU-wide conservation measures that will ensure that the stock recovers and becomes sustainable.”

If DEFRA takes the EU route it will be too slow to be effective, and the French will prevail with their demands and stop any meaningful changes to bass management save to make the bass a quota species of which the French will claim the lion’s share – and be entitled to. Under EU regulations when a species is declared a quota species, the available stock is divided up on historic grounds; the French have always caught more bass in northwestern Europe so they would get the largest share.
Not all bass inside the UK six-mile limit move outside this zone, and therefore could be under total UK control. It’s inside the six-mile limit that most UK sea anglers fish for bass so properly managed we could preserve what we have and nurture it back into a viable recreational bass fishery, long before any EU plan starts to work. It would take considerable lobbying pressure from the anglers and tackle trade – but to do nothing would be to end up with nothing! The time has come for the tackle trade – and all sea anglers – to take action.

STOP PRESS

The latest Government statistics for commercial bass landings for the first six months of this year are already down 25 per cent on the three previous years’ averages as shown below:

2010… 250 tonnes
2011 …284 tonnes
2012… 304 tonnes
2013… 208 tonnes

mortality

 

NB: Richard Benyon, mentioned in the text as the Fisheries Minister, was replaced in the Cabinet reshuffle of 7th October 2013, and has now reverted to the ‘back benches’. The current Fisheries Minister is George Eustice