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A startling new report by Washington DC-based NGO Oceana reveals that the UK’s fish population is in deep trouble. The United Kingdom faces a grave crisis as half its ten largest fish populations teeter on the brink of collapse due to overfishing and depletion. The report underscores how the UK government’s decision to set catch limits above scientific recommendations has driven these populations to a “deeply troubling state.”
The UK’s fishing industry heavily relies on these ten key stocks, and the findings are alarming. Five of these stocks are currently overfished, including mackerel, which constituted the largest landings in the UK in 2021. Additionally, some, like North Sea cod, have dwindled to critically low levels, pushing the iconic species closer to population collapse.
Prominent chef and environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has sounded the alarm, stating that the UK’s fish population is in deep trouble as overfished stocks are on a dangerous trajectory towards collapse. Fearnley-Whittingstall emphasized the potentially catastrophic impact on both human livelihoods and marine ecosystems. He called on the government to take immediate action to prevent the UK from losing its fish populations and starving its seas.
In a foreword to Oceana’s “Taking Stock” report, Fearnley-Whittingstall criticized the practice of setting catch limits above scientific advice, a habit he described as reckless. He urged the government to establish sustainable catch limits to address this crisis.
The comprehensive report, focusing on the UK’s fish population in deep trouble, examined 104 fish populations, encompassing most of the UK’s commercial fish stocks. Shockingly, it revealed that one-third (34%) of these populations are currently overfished, while a mere 45% are being fished sustainably. The remaining populations could not be assessed due to a lack of data.
Beyond fishing pressure, the audit also assessed population sizes, revealing that less than half (41%) of these populations are at a healthy size, while a quarter are in critical condition. Once again, a lack of data prevented assessment for the remainder.
Hugo Tagholm, the director and vice president of Oceana in the UK, accused the government of disregarding scientific evidence and allowing the exploitation of the seas, which has put the UK’s fish population in deep trouble. He emphasized the urgent need for the UK to demonstrate political leadership by aligning catch limits with scientific advice and adopting an ambitious strategy to end overfishing. Tagholm underscored that when scientific advice is heeded and sustainable catch limits are set, fish populations thrive, benefiting coastal communities and the environment. Tagholm also clarified that industrial fisheries primarily drive overfishing, with only 3% of the quota allocated to small inshore fishermen.
Among the worst-managed populations, including Celtic Sea cod, West of Scotland cod, and Irish Sea whiting, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has advised a complete ban on catches due to their critically low levels, further highlighting the UK’s fish population in deep trouble.
The report strongly argues that sustainable catch limits lead to healthier fish populations. For example, the five best-performing stocks in 2020-2023 had catch limits, mainly in line with ICES scientific advice. Conversely, catch limits for four of the five worst-performing stocks exceeded scientific recommendations.
The report serves as an evidence-based snapshot of the UK’s fish population in deep trouble, the status of UK fish stocks post-Brexit, and the departure from the EU common fisheries policy. Since January 2021, the UK has set total allowable catch limits in its waters. However, as many stocks are shared, the EU and UK have agreed to develop joint recommendations through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, involving a review of scientific advice from ICES.
Oceana’s findings indicate that political decisions to set catch limits above scientific advice have consistently led to overfishing. Shockingly, six stocks that were healthy in 2020 have since declined to a critical state, while only three stocks have improved from critically low to healthy since 2020.
In response to the “Taking Stock” report, a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs acknowledged the decline in fish population and stated that they had announced a series of reforms to create a profitable fishing industry while ensuring sustainable fish stocks and a healthy marine environment. These reforms are based on fisheries management plans developed in collaboration with the industry, relying on the best available science. The spokesperson reaffirmed their commitment to managing fisheries sustainably and safeguarding fishing opportunities for the UK industry.