Fishing News 19. May 2006: Attack on North Sea management

Current system is 'lunacy'

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A SCOTTISH MEP has praised the work of a scientist and an Icelandic MP and Faroese MP who believe that the current North Sea management system is counterproductive.

Struan Stevenson MEP says papers recently presented to the EU parliament's fisheries committee by independent fisheries biologist Jon Kristjansson, Faroese MP Jorgen Niclasen and Icelandic MP Sigurjon Thordarson, were "a fascinating presentation [that] defined quite clearly the lunacy of combining TACs, quotas and effort control in a single management system as we have in the North Sea today under the current harsh Brussels regime".

According to the three writers, simple days-at-sea controls would be more effective and would also help to maintain healthy stocks.

Mr Stevenson says:

"There seems little doubt that a management system based solely on effort control (days at sea) would have the benefit of doing away with discards, high grading, black fish landings and most of the other nightmarish problems with which we are so familiar under the CFP, while simultaneously providing us with better, more accurate catch records on which future scientific assessments can be based.

"However, the evidence was clear from the Faroese experience [outlined by the scientists] that such a system also helps to maintain healthy fish stocks, which has certainly not been the case in the North Sea, Irish Sea or around most of the UK coast.

"There's an old saying that maintains 'If it ain't broke don't fix it'.

However, the opposite should also be the case: 'If it is broke, fix it!'", Mr Stevenson says.

"This certainly should apply to the CFP, which has led to the virtual destruction of the whitefish fleet in Scotland, the collapse of key fish stocks and to the destruction of countless jobs in the fisheries sector."

Jon Kristjansson, Jorgen Niclasen and Sigurdon Thordarson were due to present their papers at the seminar sessions running alongside FISHING in Glasgow this week.

Unfortunately, Jon Kristjansson is unable to do so for health reasons, and Jorgen Niclasen and Sigurdon Thordarson are also unable to attend because of commitments to their respective national parliaments.

Extracts from Jon Kristjansson's paper A Proven Alternative to ICES Advice - the Faroes Experience can be found below:

Stocks? The real problem is UNDER-fishing

A proven alternative to ICES advice - the Faroes experience 2006-05-19

Extracts from various scientific papers by Jon Kristjansson

In Fishing News of 6 December 2002, Dr Robin Cook the chief executive of Fisheries Research Services Aberdeen attempted to defend ICES's recommendation to ban cod fishing in the Nor th Sea and warned that a ban on haddock was likely.

Dr Cook said: "Fishing is virtually the only factor we can control, so if we want a sustainable fishery for cod in the future, it is fishing pressure that we have to reduce. And because the reduction has been left so late, it has to be very big and very soon. Recent decommissioning is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it is simply not enough to halt the decline.

"For Scotland, and some English boats, there is an added problem. Since 1999 there have been no good year classes of haddock in the Nor th Sea. That means the stock will decline rapidly after 2003 and unless a good year class appears soon, haddock could also collapse. The signs are that 2004 could be a crunch year for roundfish boats.

We need to plan to face that problem now; it is not just cod that are in jeopardy."


ICES said the cod stock was near to a collapse, similar to the Northern cod at Newfoundland a number of years ago.

That stock has for a decade been used as a terrifying example of over fishing, even if the biological data from the stock at the beginning of the 1990s suggested starvation. The term "over fishing" seems to be a kind of "waste basket" for unexplained biological phenomena.

Over fishing is taking the blame.

But is that correct? Could the contrary be the case? Has there in fact been under fishing?

Strangely, this "over fishing problem" only occurred after the introduction of 200-nautical-mile economic exclusion zones (EEZ) in 1975-76. Until that time, the fishing fleets moved from one place to another, ie where the fish were. They left fishing grounds that had been fished down and headed for grounds where the fishing was better.

That strategy ensured that all grounds were harvested and no nation was able to stop fishing in order to "build up" fish stocks. In recent years, this build-up policy has led to unexpected results: in 2002 ICES recommended a closure of the cod fishery in the Nor th Sea.

The main advice from the scientists has been to reduce fishing effort.

Politicians have followed the advice from ICES and the landings have,

in most instances, been lower than the TAC's.


The haddock stock in the North Sea is very big. The bulk of the stock is still the 1999 year class, now seven-plus years old and an average of 40cm in length, 10cm longer than in 2003.

This shows that the scientists vastly underestimated the size of the stock three or four years ago and confirms that the North Sea was overpopulated by haddock.

The ICES advice to reduce the effort was off course by 180 degrees! So why do stocks decline when ICES advice is followed so closely?

The scientists have given the following explanation: "Fishing mortality has been consistently underestimated and stock size overestimated in previous assessments, and the current assessment suffers from the same problem. The quality of the assessment improved in 2000 and 2001 due to the exclusion of commercial CPUE data. This year the assessment again showed retrospective bias, possibly because of a decrease in the quality of the landings data in 2001." (ICES Cooperative Research Report No 255. ) By saying this, the [scientists] admit that they have based their advice on incorrect measurements since 1987!

There is no biology in the explanation, but in the scientific reports it says: "In recent years the growth rate of Nor th Sea cod has declined. The reasons for this are not known, but if growth remains slow, the rate of recovery of SSB will be delayed. Slower growth may also expose juveniles longer to discarding." (ICES Cooperative Research Report No 255. ) Slower growth is usually a sign of food shortage and should tell the managers that the assumption of excess food allowing "build up" of the stock does not hold.

The assumption of surplus food, allowing for an increase of the demersal stocks in the North Sea, was wrong.

When fishing pressure deceased, the number of fish increased and less food was left for the individual fish. Selective fishing (caused by increased mesh size) that targets the bigger fish has compounded the problem by altering the community balance (inter- and intra-specific competition, predation). There are more small individuals in the population and they face stiffer competition from other species as well.

The scientists even admit that the growth in all fish stocks in the Nor th Sea has been slowing down in recent years, without being able to explain it. This strongly supports the explanation of overcrowding.

It is interesting that in every case where fishing pressure is decreased by reducing numbers of ships or fishing days, fishing mortality, measured or estimated by scientists, seems to increase. This finally leads to closures. This calls for rethinking and reorganizing of the scientific research.

A proposed alternative to current system When larger individuals are removed from a fish stock by selective fishing, competition (and cannibalism) decreases, which in turn leads to increased recruitment. This in turn leads to changes in stock composition towards smaller individual size and retarded growth. This situation is often misinterpreted as a result of over fishing.

A remedy to correct such a "skewed" fish stock would be to use unselective gear or a combination of fishing methods that lead to unselective removals from the stock.

Therefore, a management [system] directed towards increased fishing pressure on small fish should be considered, as reduced fishing pressure on larger fish may not be practical or even possible.

This is contrary to the existing management strategies, which suggest reduction or closure of fisheries, and regards large year classes as a positive sign for the development of the stock.

The Faroes' experience

Faroe has been using an effort control system (no quotas or catch limits) since 1996. They have a days-at-sea system in which fishing days are divided between different fleet categories. The number of days has been unchanged since 2000 when it was cut by 5%, so there has been constant fishing pressure - the same fishermen in the same boats on the same grounds for the same number of days each year - for four consecutive years.

Since 2001, Faroe has managed to withstand ICES' yearly recommendation for a 2535% cut in effort and kept the fishing days intact, and has thus been able to see the effect of constant effort - no discards and almost perfect fisheries data.

Although the landings of the three major demersal species, saithe, cod and haddock, exceeded the ICES recommendation by large amounts, the stocks increased in size until 2003 when they star ted to decrease again. The catch of cod, haddock and saithe around the Faroes in 2002 was 120,000t - a record.

Haddock landings in 2005 were above average, 19,000t, cod landings were low, 18,000t and saithe landings reached a historical record - 62,000t. As usual, the grand total is around 100,000t.

So was the experiment a failure because the cod stock decreased in size?

Not at all.

The fishing pressure was not sufficient to counterbalance the stock increase and the stock size exceeded the carrying capacity of the feeding grounds. The cod stock especially became too big for its food resource and individual cod star ted to get very thin in 2003.

Growth ceased and, according to recovered tags, cod above 60cm increased only 0-3cm in one year. Mortality increased accordingly, but the stock was adjusting to a new food regime, and when the scientists registered the mortality in 2004, it was called "fishing mortality" because natural mortality is always fixed at 18% per year.

The difference between this "fixed" level of "natural" mortality is always put down to "fishing" mortality, according to ICES methodology. Calling this "over fishing" is a misinterpretation of the biological data.

The stock decline is a result of "under fishing" and accordingly we need to learn from this experiment and increase fishing pressure.


Jon Kristjansson planned to present the foregoing paper at FISHING but, unfortunately, was unable to do so for health reasons.

Two other speakers, Jorgen Niclasen, a member of the Faroese parliament, and Sigurjon Thordarson, a member of the Icelandic parliament, were also unable to deliver their papers due to parliamentary commitments.

Iceland-born Jon Kristjansson is an independent fisheries biologist. He was adviser on fisheries management to the minister of fisheries in the Faroe Islands (2001) and the Faroese fishing industry (2002 and 2003); adviser for Scotland's and Northern Ireland's fishing industries in 2003. He heads a major project on Artic char ecology in a city lake in Reykjavik, Iceland, which was initiated in 2001.

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