Tuesday, 25 February 2020

How warming waters and an absence of cod could leave the British fishing industry high and dry after Brexit

If the cod are leaving and the hake are moving in, the political calculation around fishing waters may change

As the UK government negotiates a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, fishing remains one of the more politically charged areas.

In 1983, when member states finally signed the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), seven years of negotiations had preceded it, and yet, this time round, an agreement is expected to be completed in a matter of months. The UK is set to become an "independent coastal state", as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea puts it, by 2020.

The CFP has undergone two reformations - in 1992 and in 2002 - so as to better reflect changing fishing patterns and stocks, but Europe's waters are still largely governed by the original framework.

Simply put, while catch allowances change annually as dictated by scientific advice on fish stocks, the percentage each nation is allocated remains the same, all thanks to "relative stability".

Unsurprisingly, fishers in the likes of France and Spain want to keep their percentages and would likely close their markets to Britons if the figures agreed fall short of their demands.

But British fishers have been promised more.

It is a complicated situation already, but then we also have climate change to contend with. Not only do fishers want higher quota, but there is also increasing evidence to suggest Europe's waters are warming, and its fish are on the move.

How is the UK supposed to argue the case for greater catch allowances for fish that might not be in British waters in 30 years? And how should Europe respond when its traditional fish, its favourite dinner time staples, are moving north, to seas uncharted?

This issue is most easily recognised in cod and hake, two fairly similar white fish.

Relative instability

For decades, cod has been the British choice - flaky, tender and served in golden batter, it is a national pin-up and a Friday night icon.

Hake, meanwhile, is dished up in France and Spain regularly, and is so popular in the latter it is even cooked at Christmas as a main event.

A new report says cod might yet be forced out of British waters by as early as 2050. Hake is arriving. Let's hope it's welcome.

The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP), backed by the government, has assessed how fish will respond to warming seas. The analysis, first reported by The Telegraph, suggested British fishing communities may struggle to survive if they're unable to adapt to changing seas.

Cod is one of the species identified to move north - many fishers suggest it already is - while fish such as hake will move in. Again, reports say it already is. Catch nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016, according to Seafish figures.

"Hake is doing very well, it's booming, it's a success story" Andrew Clayton, who directs the charitable group Pew's Ending Overfishing in Northwestern Europe project, told i.

"But British boats have the quota to fish for cod - French and Spanish boats catch more hake. It's all down to historical rights, which were agreed in 1983. There were attempts to be fair.

"There is evidence to suggest stock patterns are changing. Readjustment to distribution might be needed; this is a political issue. It's historical fishing rights versus geography."

Trouble in the North Sea

There are British boats that fish for hake. One of the best-known is the Ajax, which lands in Newlyn, Cornwall, and supplies some of the top restaurants in the country. But they operate off the South West, where waters are warmer already.

Newlyn hake netter Ajax
More likely to be trouble is in the North Sea, where fishers from the east coast of England and from Scotland harvest, and where cod has long been the choice.

"By 2050 climate-driven changes in suitable available habitat could become a major constraint on some commercial species' distributions in the North Sea," the MCCIP report claimed.

Previous data revealed warming has been most pronounced to the north of Scotland and in the North Sea, where sea-surface temperature has increased by up to 0.24°C per decade, scientists say.

The report also predicted that UK seas will increase in temperature by up to 0.4°C per decade if emissions carry on unabated.

Samuel Stone, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society, said to i: "It's clear things are changing and stocks are moving.

"It appears North Sea cod are moving north, but to what extent, and how quickly, we don't know. It's unclear."

Both Mr Clayton and Mr Stone said it is not only a matter of fish "moving north" that is the issue, but also fluctuating numbers and migratory routes. Juvenile fish may be spawning in new locations, for example, while adults might choose to breed in other areas. These complexities only serve to make legislation more difficult.

Decades-old agreements

"Populations are just as important," said Mr Stone. "Fish are found in different areas now, it's not just a case of north and south.

"This might be associated with climate change. More work is needed to understand what's happening. Allocations were decided decades ago, so political decisions need to be made to reflect what's going on now. We must respond to changes."

Of course all of this will probably have an economic slight on fishers - if a Brexit deal isn't made, British fleets could suffer. Especially if the relative stability model isn't updated.

"There are economic problems," Griffin Carpenter, from the New Economic Foundation, said to i.

"A lot of British fleets will have to travel farther to catch their fish, which means more days at sea, increasing crew and fuel costs."

And British fishers might only be willing to travel so far.

Politics vs science

"I have heard warming waters are bringing in new species, which British fishers haven't caught traditionally.

"This is about tension between politics and science. We have a static political system and a dynamic ecosystem.

"Allowances need to be changed, but it took seven years to negotiation the CFP the first time round - we only have a few months to agree Brexit."

The report didn't only mention cod and hake. Warming waters could see a greater presence of sardines and sole - no bad thing, necessarily - while shellfish production could falter - which is less appealing and disruptive to the status quo.

There's also what fish feed on to consider. Sandeels are also at risk, the report said, which are a major source of food for cod.

Mackerel is another potential hazard because it is said to be moving increasingly into Icelandic waters, which means Icelanders have been emboldened to claim more of the fish for themselves.

i has contacted the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

By Josh Barrie for the inews.co.uk
Monday, 24th February 2020, 4:42 pm