Cod defy the doomsayers

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The Independent Online
After years of warnings about a collapse in North Sea cod stocks due to over-exploitation, the waters around Britain are teeming with a bumper crop of young fish. What's going on, asks Environment Correspondent Nicholas Schoon.

European Union fisheries ministers are expected to grant fleets a 22 per cent increase in the tonnage of cod they can take from the North Sea when they meet today and tomorrow. There really are plenty of fish in the sea, and cod should be good value in fishmongers and chippies in 1998.

This year beach anglers have been reeling them in and trawlers have been dumping huge quantities over the side, dead, because they are below the legal landing size, or because the boats have already caught their full quota.

Yet for the past decade environmentalists and scientists have been saying cod and other species have been fished to dangerously low levels, risking a catastrophic decline due to a lack of breeding adults.

The abundant cod are infant ones, coming up to their second birthday and years away from being able to breed. An unusually large proportion have survived the risky first two years of life, since emerging from their eggs, due to unknown factors such as warmer than usual water.

Their abundance is largely a fluke. But the UK fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, and European scientists say it may also be due to a small drop in the proportion of adult, breeding cod being netted each year.

Now the question is what to do with nature's bounty. Scientists who advise the European Commission have suggested setting the overall North Sea cod quota at 153,000 tonnes for 1998, compared to 115,000 tonnes this year. But the Commission has suggested a lower figure of 140,000, allowing extra headroom for the depleted stocks of adult cod to recover.

Yesterday Mr Morley said he supported this; the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, representing English and Welsh fleets, is inclined to agree too. "Quite a few of our members would be happy to see that happen," said a spokesman.

Quotas for several other stocks will also be raised and others lowered when the fisheries ministers hold their annual negotiations today and tomorrow on dividing allocations between the different national fleets. The Commission proposes a 71 per cent increase for North Sea herring and a 28 per cent cut for herring off the west of Scotland.

Quotas are set according to the number of young fish that scientists find in the sea. Because this varies wildly, so do the quotas. If the number of adult, breeding fish was allowed to build up, quotas would not only be more stable from year to year but also higher.

Mr Morley announced yesterday that he had agreed with the European Commission to implement a 28 per cent reduction in the amount of fishing done by UK boats which catch herring and mackerel over the next four years. Most are based in Scotland and if the skippers do not agree to voluntary curbs the Government will close their fishing grounds for part of the year.

There will also be an 8 per cent cut in fishing by beam trawlers - which take flat fish like sole - in the Western Approaches and a 19 per cent cut for beam trawlers in the North Sea. Many of these are "quota hopper" boats, Dutch-owned and manned but registered in Britain.