Henry Gilbey
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Henry Gilbey blog

Bass issues getting national coverage - and the winner is............

Although presumption is of course the mother of all whatever, I am presuming that any of you here who have at least a smidgen of interest in what is going on in the oceans of the world have at least heard of a writer called Charles Clover and his book "The End of the Line" (see here) - and of course there was a pretty terrifying film made of this book, see the trailer below. In the Comments section of The Sunday Times from 29th Sept there was a fantastic piece by Charles Clover that was all about a certain fish that so many of us love and obsess about.

I don't want to get into trouble here, but I have copied it into this blog post as I really want those of you who don't read The Sunday Times to be able to see it. The simple fact that a cold water fish is getting a bit of national press coverage these last few weeks can only be a good thing, and especially when such a well-respected writer like Charles Clover pens a piece such as the one below. I have taken the liberty of highlighting a few of the major and perhaps most scary points that are raised in his excellent article.

"The sea bass if off today, sir. Those French have wolfed it all" - Charles Clover - "The wild sea bass has a double value compared with other fish caught around the British coast. Its firm, delicious flesh makes it an expensive item on smart restaurant menus, though the plate-sized ones are usually farmed fish from the Mediterranean.

The bass — the "sea" is superfluous as there is no other in our waters — is also prized as our premium saltwater sporting fish, thanks to its fighting ability and willingness to take a lure or a fly as well as bait such as ragworm or peeler crab. So you would think we would take rather more care of bass than we do.

You might even think that, for reasons of simple electoral arithmetic, the opportunity to appeal to a constituency of 2m people in England and Wales who go sea angling — as well as 12,000 commercial fishermen — would mean that scientists, officials and politicians would worry as much about the bass as about the cod, haddock or plaice that we catch in larger quantities. Well, think again. It turns out that the last scientific assessment of bass stocks was in 2009, and when scientists tried to estimate stocks earlier this year, they found they were at their lowest levels for 20 years.

The reason we are so slow on the uptake is that the bass has been one of those stocks managed nationally, which means scientific assessments happened when and if budgets permitted. There are dozens of species "managed" like this in inshore waters, for instance the gurnard — widely recommended by ecologically aware chefs as a substitute for cod. Nobody knows whether the gurnard is being overharvested.

The latest figures show that the bass is a victim of climate change — by which I mean temperatures going down, not up. The bass did well when sea temperatures rose around the British coast over the past four decades. It began to breed in places other than the English Channel and to migrate as far north as Scotland. There was an epic breeding year in 1989, after one of the warmest winters on record. More recently there have been several cold winters, which the climate models of the Met Office's Hadley Centre have struggled to explain. These have drastically reduced the bass's spawning success.

The bass is a slow-growing species that takes four to seven years to reach breeding age. This means there is now a gap in the population. It is already too late for there to be healthy numbers of bass for anglers or commercial fishermen come 2018, whatever we do, and there is a real danger of wiping out the breeding stock. The question now is, do we have the means to stop fishermen catching too many older ones, now we know that there are so few young ones coming through?

What Britain did in the past — create bass nursery areas in selected estuaries and set minimum landing sizes — worked in the 1980s. Then fishing patterns changed. Fishermen, mainly French but also British, discovered where in the Channel the bass breed (their fry then drift back into estuaries along the south coast for the next stages of their life cycle) and began to hammer them with nets towed fast by two trawlers.

The French suspected, rightly, that the EU would eventually have to impose quotas for bass, so while stocks went on rising they fished cynically for "track record" — that is, for a larger slice of the EU's fish pie. By contrast, the British went on imposing restrictions on fishing in estuaries and on "pair-trawling" within 12 miles of the shore because they thought it was killing dolphins. While there remains doubt over how much smaller boats catch and sell and how much is caught by anglers, nobody disputes that the industrial boats are catching most of the fish.

The EU has now taken on the problem. France wants the EU to declare a total allowable catch — which would mean sharing out quotas, the lion's share of which would go to France, naturellement.

Britain and Ireland say it is perverse to penalise countries that have been practising some form of conservation while others have been depleting the stock. They say that once you set the rules by track record — the only established way of sharing out a common resource under EU law — you create a huge incentive against conservation. Britain, instead, wants a ban on trawlers fishing the Channel during the spring spawning season and limits on the amount of fish a vessel may catch.

With this crisis comes a reminder that important questions were asked and fluffed by the Blair government 10 years ago. Would it not be of greater benefit to the UK economy to designate the bass as a species for recreational angling alone, as the Irish have done? (Almost certainly, yes.) If that is too difficult, why not expand the size of mesh fishermen can use, resulting in bigger bass for all? This would be tough on the UK inshore fleet, but save recreational fishing.

The big question is whether EU ministers have the political will to save the bass, because the choices are so hard. The smart money fears that the measures agreed will be too little to fend off a stock collapse and that sensible management will come only when there is a moratorium on bass fishing like the one America declared when stocks of the striped bass, a close relative, collapsed in the 1980s, setting the foundation for an astonishing recovery. The alternative — for which Europe may lack the nerve — is to take industrial fishing out of the equation altogether and for good." - Charles Clover, The Sunday Times, 29th September 2013.

And the winner of that Major Craft Turel lure rod competition is (drum roll please)................ Steve Mitchell from Cornwall. Thanks so much to you all for all your entries. There was some great stuff there, but Steve's simple, to the point and "unexpectedly emotional" words struck a chord with me straight away. Steve's entry : "Catching a 9lb Bass was so unexpectedly emotional that it changed my attitude, I now practice catch and release." Well done Steve, and the rod will be coming to you in due course. Enjoy it and well done. Thanks again and I will see what I can do in the future about running a few more of these competitions.

Henry Gilbey10 Comments