We’re Not Gonna Take It!

Until the bass plan is amended to prioritise a higher stock target, I will be telling Defra ”We do not accept your plan”.

Have you ever had the frustrating experience of someone asking for your advice, you spending valuable time giving your advice, and then that person ignores it and does something else?  This is what Defra has done to sea anglers with the bass plan – asking sea anglers what they want to see in the bass fishery and then publishing a plan that doesn’t prioritise what we want.

But Defra has listened carefully to commercial fishers, promising them a review of the bass authorisation system that could let more commercial fishers into the bass fishery, suggesting ditching the “bycatch only” rule for netters and trawlers, allowing commercial fishers to land all the bass they catch and changing the system to enable commercial fishers to get their catch limits increased more quickly.

The biggest problem with Defra’s plan is its impoverished objective for our bass stock.   What sea anglers want is simple: improve and protect the bass stock so we (and our children and our childrens’ children) have more and bigger bass to catch – fewer blanks, more trophy fish.   We like catching large, powerful bass and these fish are vital to the stock too, since they are more reproductive than smaller bass.  Currently we have a bass stock structure where too many of the large bass have been removed by commercial fishing, so the stock lacks resilience, increasing the chance of another crash in the future.

95% of sea anglers and 74% of commercial fishers who responded to the consultation told Defra “To allow the bass stock to rebuild and be maintained at a high level, a long-term strategy is needed.”  We asked Defra to look at World class fisheries abroad, for example Australia, where the state of Queensland is targeting stock sizes of 60% of the natural, unfished stock size, recognising that much larger, healthier stocks maximise benefits for coastal communities.   But Defra wants the UK status quo to continue in the short term, targeting a stock size just 33% of the natural, unfished stock size (or, putting it another way, allowing 67% of the bass stock to be killed).

Defra talks about the current stock target being “sustainable” but that is very misleading.  What Defra means by “sustainable” is just that the fish being killed are balanced by the stock growth, so the stock size is stable.   But a wide range of stock targets are sustainable in this narrow sense, there is absolutely nothing special about Defra’s current target, except that it aims to maximise the tonnage of fish being killed, which is a really stupid thing to do.

Until the bass plan is amended to prioritise a higher stock target, I will be telling Defra ”We do not accept your plan”.

With thanks to Sea Angler magazine for permission to use this article.

A New Harvest Strategy for Bass

The Government’s Joint Fishery Statement included two key goals that are at the heart of world class fisheries management:

  1. Protect and improve our fish stocks; and
  2. Manage fish stocks to maximise the benefit to coastal communities.

So what bass stock level will maximise benefits to coastal communities?

One thing is certain, Maximum Sustainable Yield (“MSY”), which maximises only the tonnage of bass that is killed and sold, is not the answer.

  • MSY is recognised by scientists as being economically inferior to the principle of Maximum Economic Yield, so an MSY policy will not maximise benefits.
  • We have seen very clearly the result of using MSY for bass – a disastrous stock crash from which the stock is making a very slow recovery.  Coastal communities are still paying a heavy price for this mismanagement.

Defra has now shared its preliminary thinking on the Bass Fishery Management Plan (“FMP”) and we are very pleased to see that it includes the goal of maximising the benefits of bass fishing for local coastal communities.  However, that goal simply cannot be achieved without the right harvest strategy and Defra’s proposals on this front are far too timid.  They propose starting work in three years’ time (2026) on new research to assess alternative harvest strategies, with no plan for adoption or implementation.

The relationships between stock size and socio-economic benefits for coastal communities are complex and it will take scientists several years from 2026 to investigate these and propose an optimised harvest strategy.  It will then take years for future Governments to adopt and implement the harvest strategy and more years again for the fish stock to grow to the optimal size.  At that rate, we will be stuck with the failed MSY approach well into the 2030’s and probably not achieve the optimal stock size until 10 or 15 years after that.  Are we really prepared to fail on a key goal for the bass fishery and coastal communities for the next twenty years or more?  If so, what is the point of the Bass FMP?

We can do better than this by following the enlightened lead of fishery managers in Queensland, Australia.  They are aiming for a final target of 60% of the unfished stock size (as a proxy for Maximum Economic Yield) by 2027, with an interim target of 40-50% of the unfished stock size as a stepping-stone.

We should do the same.  We know that Maximum Economic Yield gives better economic benefits than MSY, so we should aim now for Maximum Economic Yield while the scientists work on providing an optimised harvest strategy within the next 3 years.

So we are asking Defra to be more ambitious in the draft Bass FMP and to recognise the need for concrete, rapid actions:

  • State firmly that we will move from MSY as soon as possible in order to achieve the goal of maximising benefits for coastal communities.
  • Set an interim goal of a bass stock size of 40-50% of the unfished stock size and ask the scientists to provide an interim harvest strategy to achieve this.
  • Ask the scientists to start working now on understanding the relationships between stock size and socio-economic benefits for coastal communities.
  • Set a date within the next 3 years for adopting a final harvest strategy aimed at maximising benefits for coastal communities.

Let’s put the Bass FMP firmly on track to deliver:

  • a more resilient bass stock that can cope with bad years when fewer young fish survive to maturity.
  • a higher Catch Per Unit of Effort for commercial fishers (so less fuel and time expended) and recreational fishers (fewer “blanks” and more bass per session).
  • higher commercial yields per fish (since the average fish size will be bigger).
  • more of the very big fish that recreational fishers love to catch.

Maximise Benefits to Coastal Communities from the Bass Fisheries Management Plan

Our government has said it wants the UK’s fisheries to be “world class” and is bringing in Fishery Management Plans (“FMP”) to help achieve this.     The Bass FMP is a frontrunner FMP and is particularly interesting because the major stakeholder by participation and socio-economic value generated is recreational fishing, not commercial fishing. 

To deliver a world class bass fishery, we need the right goal.  What should that goal be?  In 2004, the government Cabinet Office published a paper called “Net Benefits”, which included the recommendation that  “The overarching aim of fisheries management should be ‘to maximise the return to the UK of the sustainable use of fisheries resources and protection of the marine environment’ and stated the government has a responsibility to manage marine activities “to ensure the best value is made of the UK’s marine resources and biodiversity is preserved”.

Looking at best practice overseas, in 2016 the Government of Queensland, Australia, said it will “Adopt harvest strategies that have the flexibility to maximise benefits, for both the community and the ecosystem” and also said “Our limited fisheries resources should be shared and allocated in a way that provides the greatest economic value, while ensuring ongoing sustainability and greater resilience.”

Our fisheries belong to all of us, and isn’t it blindingly obvious that they should be managed to deliver the best long-term benefits to our society as a whole?   Yet currently our government is managing the bass fishery primarily to deliver the maximum tonnage of bass that can be killed and has paid little or no attention to the question of how to get “best value” from the bass fishery.  This must change. The Bass FMP must have as its overarching goal the maximisation of benefits for our coastal communities.