Overfishing is degrading the seas and coasts around the UK, a report on the maritime environment claims today.
Current fishing practices mean nearly two-thirds of fish stocks around Britain are either overexploited or have already collapsed, with the remainder fully exploited, says the report from English Nature, the Government's wildlife conservation agency.
In the meantime, huge numbers of other marine species are being killed by fishing, and the seabed's animal and plant communities are being widely damaged. For every kilogram of sole caught in the North Sea by beam trawlers (which churn up the seabed), up to 14kg of other seabed animals are killed. If there is no relief from the pressure the marine ecosystem might not recover.
An "ecosystem-based" approach, guarding the intertwining fates of all marine organisms, is now necessary to repair the damage.
The warning comes hot on the heels of the call from European fisheries scientists to shut down the North Sea cod fishery completely, in a final attempt to allow collapsing stocks of cod, haddock and other whitefish to recover.
That advice two weeks ago was given from a fisheries point of view. The significance of the new report is its all- embracing environmental picture. Its alarm call is, if anything, more strident.
Yet, although half of Britain's wildlife is found in the sea – about 40,000 species including corals, sea horses, fish and mammals – people are not aware how serious the position is, partly because the damage is out of sight beneath the waves, the report says.
English Nature's chairman, Sir Martin Doughty, said: "We have a major challenge to get people to recognise the marine ecosystem is degraded and vulnerable and, unless we take some of the pressure off, it may lose its ability to bounce back and recover."
The report highlights other serious pressures on the marine environment, including the run-off of agricultural chemicals – since 1984, nitrogen inputs to the sea surrounding the UK have risen by 20 per cent – and the loss of salt marshes caused by rising sea levels. But its severest strictures are reserved for the fishing industry, and it is eloquent in detailing the onslaught on marine life from intensive fishing, decade after decade.
Plaice caught now are a quarter of the size they were in 1902, the report says. The average size of a cod has gone from 100cm (40in) to less than 40cm over the same period, and the average size of any fish caught in the English Channel has declined by 15 per cent.
The report says: "Most of the large and old fish have been removed from the natural population. Fishing has taken so many fish out of the seas that the basic structure of marine food chains has altered and is degrading.
"Fishing activities over sandy seabeds has resulted in dramatic changes to their species composition. Over the past century, there was a decline in virtually all bivalve molluscs that live in the sediment.
"Fish stocks of many important species are at historically low levels and, in most instances outside safe biological limits.Fishing effort remains above levels which will allow stocks and hence the environment to recover."
The only answer, the report says, is to cut back on fishing. "The European fishing fleet is too large and catches too many fish. The amount caught must be reduced to bring fishing effort in line with resources.
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