Net loss in the North Sea shocks the watching public into action

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight on Channel 4 may have been the first time many members of the public have witnessed the terrible scenes of rampant waste and loss of breeding cod. It showed Hugh on a Scottish vessel whose captain had already caught his cod quota. To catch his quota of other species, he trawled the ocean bed and hauled in cod of up to 20 pounds. Such fish may have taken 15 or more years to grow to that size and they had to be thrown back dead.

I have been a beach angler for most of my life. I saw large catches of cod from the beach in the 1950s and 1960s. In recent decades the decline was drastic and some years no cod were seen. Only recently have catches improved. The sentiments of most beach anglers are with the fishermen, but from a different angle.

Professional fishermen don't like wasting fuel and time just to throw away most of their catch. Amateur beach anglers don't like the apparently pointless killing of such fine mature fish when they are happy to catch just one or two cod in a whole days fishing. A cod over 10lbs is probably their fish of a lifetime.

Why do we need fishing restrictions? To ensure diminished stocks replenish themselves, each country's catch is rationed by a complicated system of quotas and days at sea. Matters always do get complicated when "green thinking" meets hard- headed business minds driven by profit.

The limits apply to many species, but cod is one of the most over-fished and has been the hot topic. According to some scientists, there should be no fishing at all for a year in some areas to allow stocks to return to a sustainable level.

Quotas have been eased to make it better for the fishermen, but some environmentalists strongly oppose any easing of the rules.

Almost all of the discarded, dying fish are cod. So what should change? One suggestion is to use nets with mesh sizes which catch certain sizes and species and allow others to escape.

Closing parts of the sea that have been over-fished is another thought. Perhaps we should allow fishermen to land all they catch up to a certain tonnage, but permit them only so many fishing days per month.

The answer is not going to be easy – it must be capable of being policed in a cost- effective manner and be mutually beneficial for all.

Public sympathy is on Hugh's side. I checked his website shortly after his first programme and 67,000 had signed up to his campaign.

The following morning the figure had increased by 20,000. About 90 per cent of the fish eaten in the UK comes from outside the EU, from places like Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. A lot of this is cod, so the futility of the current practice of discarding our locally-caught cod is obvious.

The scientists say we are still not home and dry and must keep the present practice to increase stock recovery, but surely an immediate rethink is necessary for this reason: the trawl nets kill most of the catch by crushing. What is the best way to tell the Government? I would suggest writing to your MP or regsiter your support on Hugh's website www.fishfight.net.

CW 15/1/11

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