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Our dying sea

The Independent

Royal commission warns of a marine 'catastrophe' and calls for a ban on all fishing in one third of British waters

8th December 2004


The fish that once sustained fishing communities in such places as Grimsby and Fraserburgh has now almost disappeared from the North Sea, as it has done from many parts of the north Atlantic. It is the most extreme example of a pattern: according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), the proportion of north-east Atlantic fish stocks within safe biological limits fell from 26 per cent to 16 per cent from 1996 to 2001. In the North Sea, the minimum recommended stock size to sustain cod at an acceptable level is 150,000 tons; it is now at about 46,000 tons. In the Irish Sea, the figure is as bad - 5,200 tons compared with a recommended level of 10,000. The west of Scotland and the north Atlantic are at similar levels. Ices says there should be no cod fishing in these areas next year.


The hake stock of the southern part of the North Sea is estimated to be at a low of 10,200 tons, compared with a minimum recommended level of 35,000 tons. This is largely because of overfishing by Spanish trawlers to satisfy huge domestic demand, and continues a 20-year decline of what was once a common species. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommends that there should be no hake fishing next year.


Like cod, plaice is a staple of the British diet that may soon become a rare and expensive luxury. The current stock in the North Sea is estimated to be around 190,000 tons, below the minimum level of 230,000. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has advised that the level of fishing must be reduced by a total of 55 per cent to help stocks recover.


Many thousands of dolphins and porpoises are caught accidentally every year in the nets of European boats, to judge from the hundreds of animals washed up on French and British coasts, thought to be only a small fraction of the true total. The practice of pair-trawling - use of a colossal net by two boats working together - by the French winter seabass fishery is thought to take a heavy toll.


One of the most environmentally damaging and wasteful aspects of fishing is that huge numbers of fish are thrown back dead into the sea after capture, because they are the wrong size or for other reasons.

The European Commission has estimated that discards may account for nearly 70 per cent of fish mortality in some species and locations, and the problem poses a serious threat to fish conservation.


Thousands of seabirds are killed in fishing operations every year, often by "long-liner" boats, which send out lines of baited hooks which can be up to 22 miles long. This technique is having a catastrophic effect on the albatross populations of the Southern Ocean, threatening some species of albatross, which mate for life, with extinction. But it also causes wide mortality in Europe, with large numbers of fulmars (seabirds which occur widely in Britain) being caught annually by long-liner boats from Norway.


Underwater photographs, right, show the condition of the seabed before and after bottom-trawling. The result is clearly atrocious. Bottom-trawling can plough furrows up to 20ft wide and 6ins deep across the seabed, which destroys the rich, complex bottom-dwelling life. Some areas are trawled this way five times a year, turned over much more than arable fields, and afterwards they look as desolate as the surface of the moon. Large parts of the North Sea have suffered badly.


Commercial fishing is thought to have killed 90 per cent of larger, predator fish. Severe overfishing of the Grand Banks cod fishery off Newfoundland, which collapsed in 1992, caused a shift in the ecosystem which means numbers never recover, even when fishing is banned.

Environmental Effects of Marine Fisheries - Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
(pdf ~8.07Mb)

(Click here to download report “Environmental Effects of Marine Fisheries” from current site if you experience difficulty using the link shown above)