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Anchovies abandon Bay of Biscay for warm British waters

By John Lichfield in Paris

The Independent

30th August 2003

French and Spanish fishermen have scoured the Bay of Biscay in vain for the usual shoals of anchovies and tuna this summer. Their favourite catch has been sheltering from the hot weather, hundreds of miles to the north, off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

Although this year's water temperatures have been exceptional - five degrees higher than usual off southern Brittany - the empty nets of the Spanish and French trawlers reinforce recent findings by French and British marine scientists. The fisheries map of Europe is gradually turning upside-down.

Anchovies and sardines, once a rarity in British waters, are arriving in greater and greater numbers off eastern and north-eastern Scotland. Traditional northern fish species, such as cod, haddock and herring, which thrive in cool water, are becoming scarce.

French fishermen, who normally hunt tuna off Brittany at this time of year, finally located the shoals of the giant migratory fish this week, in the Atlantic to the west of Ireland. Spanish fishermen have given up looking for anchovies altogether this summer.

French marine scientists say this is part of a pattern of permanent migration of fish species, probably associated with climate change. Fish once found almost exclusively in warm, southerly waters - the anchovy, the sardine, the tuna and the prized "bar" or sea-perch - are drifting farther and farther north.

The gradual disappearance of fish such as the cod - now said to be only just above the minimum breeding stock it needs to survive in the North Sea and parts of the Atlantic - is blamed partly on overfishing and pollution. But a change in sea temperature may also be a decisive factor.

Jean Boucher, a scientist at the French ocean research institute Ifremer, said: "Over a period of time, the warming of the climate must share some responsibility in the diminution of the stocks of species like the cod. But it is also bringing other species, such as the bar [sea-perch], farther north."

If the trend continues, there could be explosive political consequences for the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy. The system is based on national catch limits (quotas), in turn based on traditional fishing patterns going back decades. If the traditional distribution of fish changes, there will be pressure to change the catches. How long before Scottish fishermen seek an anchovy quota?

This month, the Fisheries Research Service (FRS) in Aberdeen, an agency of the Scottish Executive, published a report on accidental anchovy catches off the Scottish coast. The small, pungent fish, associated with Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine, was appearing with "steadily increasing frequency" in the nets of fishing boats operating in the North Sea off the eastern coast of Scotland, the agency reported. In commercial fishing terms, the numbers being caught are still quite low. There is no question, yet, of establishing a viable Scottish anchovy fishery. But the FRS report said: "The numbers are unprecedented in an historical context. Trawl data going back to 1925 show that catches of these warm-water species increased quite suddenly after 1995, with relative numbers highest in 1998."

There has also been a boom in by-catches (accidental landings) of Scottish sardines.

"Temperature may be the most important explanatory factor," said Doug Beare of the FRS. "Perhaps because of its influence on the supply of anchovy and sardine food and its positive effect on egg and larval survival. The recent occurrences in the north-western North Sea of anchovy and sardine could in our view be another example of ecological changes that are taking place across the world's marine (and terrestrial) ecosystems in relation to climate change.” The agency declined to comment on any connection between warmer sea temperatures and the reduction in stocks of fish such as cod and haddock.

Anchovy and chips anyone?