Last week’s parliamentary debate on the management of bass stocks saw a remarkable change in tone from the usual debates which, in the past, have been dominated by apologists for commercial over fishing. Wednesday’s Westminster Hall debate was secured by the Conservative MP George Hollingbery, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Angling, and received strong support from both sides of the House of Commons with powerful speeches in favour of bass conservation measures from two former fisheries ministers – Richard Benyon (Con) and Ben Bradshaw (Lab). George Hollingbery described the current policy of unlimited exploitation, which has now caused experts call for an 80% cut in bass landings to avert a stock collapse, as ‘dumb as dirt’. Richard Benyon expressed regrets that he did not ‘steamroller a higher bass minimum landing size through’ when he had the chance.
Several MPs, including Ben Bradshaw claimed that Defra’s own figures on the economic value of bass angling made the case for designating bass a recreational only species. This followed the publication of a study from the Blue Marine Foundation based on the Sussex fishery which placed fish caught by rod and line as having more than three times the economic worth of those caught in nets. Other strong speeches in favour of managing bass as primarily a recreational species were made by Simon Hart (Con), Jon Cruddas (Lab), Charles Walker (Con) and Jim Shannon (DUP). Several MPs drew attention to the economic value of recreational sea angling beginning with George Hollingbery who said:
'Sea Angling 2012 shows that there are 884,000 sea anglers in England. They directly pump £1.23 billion into the economy, and 10,500 full-time jobs depend on that spending. Indirect spend is equivalent to £2.1 billion and 23,600 jobs...and the VAT collected from sea anglers dwarfs the first sale value of the entire commercial fish landings in the UK.'
Angling Trust Marine Campaign Manager David Mitchell said:
'It was great to see politicians waking up to the economic case for meaningful bass conservation measures. The Blue Marine Foundation project to define the economic and environmental value of sea bass, to which the Angling Trust contributed, provides overwhelming evidence that bass should be a rod and line caught species only because of the huge economic value and relatively small impact on the species that recreational bass angling generates.'
The MPs had all received comprehensive advance briefings from the Angling Trust and the Marine Conservation Society making the case for:
- An immediate increase in the current minimum landing size from 36cms to 45 - 48cms in order to allow bass to successfully reach at least their first spawning size of 42cms and to have time to complete their life cycle.
- An end to commercial harvesting during the spring spawning period, restrictions on pairs trawling and trammel netting and reductions in catch limits per boat.
- A significant expansion in estuarine bass nursery areas where juvenile fish can be afforded greater protection.
- Rejecting the proposed one fish bag limit on anglers as unfair, disproportionate and unbalanced.
Responding to the debate Shadow Fisheries Minister Angela Smith MP pledged Labour’s support for immediate action to preserve bass stocks. She said:
'..if we do not take tough decisions now we will be back in two years facing an even worse crisis in stock levels.'
Angela Smith repeated the calls for less netting and more rod and line fishing, saying:
'Has the Minister considered incentives to encourage commercial rod and line fishing, especially within the 6-mile limit, as an alternative to more damaging commercial fishing practices?'
Summing up the debate Conservative Fisheries Minister George Eustice MP pledged to press for tougher measures at the EU December Fisheries Council to protect bass and rejected the proposed one fish bag limit on anglers.
'I will seek to agree a more effective package of measures to finally start the recovery of the bass stock. That will be challenging, as December Council negotiations always are, but it will be a UK priority for this Council to extend and strengthen the proposals to limit commercial fishing. We will also seek a two-fish bag limit for recreational anglers, rather than the one-fish limit that has been proposed.'
Angling Trust Campaigns Chief Martin Salter said:
'We have now got a big head of steam building behind our bass campaign backed up by some great work in parliament, a timely report from the Blue Marine Foundation and overwhelming scientific advice in favour of radical measures to protect this iconic species. There will be the predictable objections from those who either deny the science or who seek to put short term profit before the long term interests of species. To concede once again to these pressures will ensure the final collapse of any viable bass fishery for either the commercial or recreational sector.'
The Angling Trust is working with the Marine Conservation Society to ensure that these issues are raised again in the Annual Fisheries debate in the House of Commons on December 11th which precedes the European Fisheries Council meeting the following week.