European Commission Cuts Catch Quota on Overfished Cod

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 5, 2006 (ENS) - Europe's fisheries commissioner today called for a 25 percent cut in next year's cod fishery, in the absence of any significant improvement in cod stocks after years of overfishing. The Commission also proposes to allow Dutch fishing vessels an exemption from the current ban on fishing with an electric beam.

The 25 percent cut in cod fishing possibilities applies only to waters of the European Union. For the cod stock shared with Norway, a reduction of 14 percent was agreed in bilateral negotiations last week.

Joe Borg, European Commissioner for Fisheries and Maritime Affairs said the 25 percent cut was set by the Commission after the two independent scientific bodies consulted did not provide "clear quantitative scientific advice."

One of the scientific bodies, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, advised in October that "for all southern cod stocks ... there should be no catch in 2007."

Northern cod populations are doing better. The ICES said northern cod stocks in the Barents Sea and around Iceland are "large and productive."


Crewmen aboard a Dutch fishing vessel sort a catch of cod. (Photo courtesy Visserij Nieuws)
The other scientific body, the Commission’s own Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries, STECF, said in an August report that "cod recovery will occur only if fishing mortality on cod is reduced much more than the cod recovery plan has been able to achieve."

“While the scientific advice is mixed," Borg said, "we must take heart from the positive signs observed in some of the stocks subject to long-term plans."

"This means that we must consolidate our gradual approach to regaining sustainability in all our fisheries by basing it securely on science and combining it with stakeholders’ expertise to deliver sound fisheries management," he said.

Environmental groups were critical of the 25 percent cut. The global conservation group WWF called the Commission's proposal one of weakest in years.

Pointing out that ICES scientists have been advising a zero cod catch for the last five years, WWF said, "The situation is alarming particularly for cod in the North Atlantic, as not only high quotas are set, but also as 40 percent of the cod catches are unaccounted for."

As a solution, WWF is calling for the deployment of observers on board fishing vessels.

The conservation group is also critical of a Commission proposal to allow Dutch fishing vessels an exemption from the current ban on electrical fishing methods.

Electric fishing was banned by the EU in 1998 for its destructive impact on marine life.

The ICES said in a report to the Commission earlier this year, "Research in the freshwater environment has demonstrated that electrical fishing can damage fish. It can lead to mortality from stress, haemorrhaging, respiratory failure and spinal damage."

Pulses from an electric beam system towed by a fishing trawler are directed at the sea floor disturbing bottom fish to increase the likelihood they will be netted.

The electric system may disturb the sea floor less than the usual trawling method in which iron chains are dragged along the bottom to rouse the fish, the ICES said. The chains kill non-target species which are discarded with a poor chance of survival.

Electrical systems have been used as a survey tool in freshwater environments for many decades and in some non-commercial marine fisheries since the 1960s.

But WWF says the reintroduction of electric fishing "represents a huge threat to the marine ecosystem."

"Scientific advisory bodies to the Commission have warned against the unknown ecological consequences of electric fishing," said Carol Phua, fisheries policy officer at WWF's European Policy Office. "It is not by chance that this practice was prohibited in 1998. Once again, the EU is stepping backwards instead of pushing for progress."