Bass and other fishes: Who owns them, and who should have access to them how much?

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24 Apr

Why the recreational fisheries sector needs be included the Common Fisheries Policy on an equal footing with commercial fisheries and aquaculture

EU recognises that stocks of wild fish are a public good (1a; 1b). Theoretically, nobody owns the fish. All can fish for them as much as they like, unless some rules deny or restrict that right. In the good old days – which is not that long ago - it was commonly believed that marine fish stocks could not be overfished. Today, we are painfully aware that overfishing is not only possible but a huge problem. So, management was needed and is put in place for many fisheries. 

As fish stocks are ‘a public good’ one would anticipate that the public should be given preference over other (commercial) exploiters of the fish stocks. This is not the case, far from it. Our decision makers think and act differently. 

The narrative is that only commercial fisheries and aquaculture provide food and generate jobs and income from the fish resource. Surprise, so does the recreational fisheries sector, it even provides more economic output and jobs in a number of regions and countries. 

Jobs and income figures are collected, registered and presented predominantly for the commercial sector, much less for the recreational fisheries sector. Some improvement has happened recent years but much more needs be done, and done regularly.

When catches of bass were estimated in 2014 the recreational part amounted to ca. 25% of the total catches (2), which obviously was enough to deem it ‘a significant impact’. The 75% harvested by the commercial fishers was not worded ‘significant’, it’s just a given. Therefore, the underlying message becomes that recreational fishing is a problem while commercial fisheries is a necessity. So, commercial fish exploitation takes precedence over recreational fishing from the outset. 

The flawed narrative and lack of figures have resulted in unfair legislation at EU level. At EU level recreational fishing is not of any interest until an estimate eventually shows ‘significant impact’(3). Nobody can tell for sure which percentage translates into ‘significant’ as nobody knows. In the bass case 25% of the total was deemed ‘significant’. More importantly, recreational catch figures are only collected or sampled when it is ‘too late’, when the stock is overfished. Effectively, this has and will happen again: A stock is overfished, predominantly by the commercial fisheries sector; catch restrictions are needed, the recreational fisheries sector is restricted in the name of ‘fair share of the burden’. The ‘fair share of the burden’ won’t be based on historic catches but the most recent ones, which is grossly unfair to the recreational sector. 

This answer by the Commission of 18 April 2018 gives more insight into the EU thinking and dealing with recreational (bass) fisheries (4a; 4b): 

“ICES states that there are two separate stocks and they produce separate advice for the two stocks either side of the 48th parallel (..). The advice for the Bay of Biscay is more positive than the Northern stock, reporting increases in the biomass. Landings are less than the precautionary level in the latest ICES advice. There is no evidence in the ICES advice that the stock is in decline. Around 97% of commercial landings are by French vessels which are managed by a national quota. There is no evidence in the ICES advice that the Bay of Biscay stock is not being managed at a sustainable level by this national quota system. 

That said, the ICES advice for the Bay of Biscay reports that ‘Recreational fisheries are likely to contribute substantially to fishery removals in some areas’, but these catches could not be quantified. As such, it was felt prudent to reduce recreational catches to a 3 fish bag limit.” 

So, the Southern bass stock is doing fine and improving, but still recreational fisheries are punished by bag-limits - five bass last year, down to three bass this year. This is what lack of data does to our sector and the dependant businesses and jobs. Whom to blame? In this particular case, the blame mainly lies with the French government, which hasn’t delivered the bass data, which it is obliged to deliver. One can imagine that our sector will be blamed if the Southern bass stock gets into the same kind of trouble as the Northern bass is, which is more than likely if one should believe anecdotal evidence about surplus landings and discards. If the Southern stock crashes our sector highly likely will be restricted further or closed down to carry ‘a fair share of the burden’ of rebuilding the stock we will be told again. 

The Western Baltic Cod stock was overfished for years down to the point where recreational fishing suddenly was deemed to have a ‘significant impact’. In this regard, the ICES advice from last year (5) makes interesting reading. It shows that the commercial sector caught as much as 38,000 tons of Western Baltic Cod in 1996, and thereafter the catches declined (table 6; page 7). For a comparison, the recreational catches were low and steady all years, never exceeding 3,061 tons (2015). Nevertheless, since last year the recreational sector is imposed bag limits for having ‘a significant impact’. The impact wouldn’t be significant had commercial fisheries been properly managed previous years. Food for thoughts: The same table 6 shows that for a number of years the commercial discards alone amounted to more than the total of the recreational catches of cod. 

At the end of the day, the flawed narrative and the unfair treatment of recreational fishing won’t go away until the recreational fisheries sector is fairly and properly included the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy on an equal footing with the commercial fisheries- and aquaculture sectors. 


1a) Former EU fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki:
“ITQs would not be property [‘Individually tradable quotas’] but user rights, because the resource remains a public good.

1b) Former EU Commissioner for Environment, Janez Potočnik:
“The fish cannot go to Court” – the environment is a public good that must be supported by a public voice”

2) ICES advice for 2015 (Northern bass) - European sea bass in Divisions IVbc, VIIa, and VIId–h (Irish Sea, Celtic Sea, English Channel, and southern North Sea)

3) The Control Regulation, Article 55:

3. Without prejudice to Regulation (EC) No 199/2008, Member States shall monitor, on the basis of a sampling plan, the catches of stocks subject to recovery plans by recreational fisheries practised from vessels flying their flag and from third country vessels in waters under their sovereignty or jurisdiction. Fishing from shore shall not be included.

4. The Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) shall evaluate the biological impact of recreational fisheries as referred to in paragraph 3. Where a recreational fishery is found to have a significant impact, the Council may decide, in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 37 of the Treaty, to submit recreational fisheries as referred to in paragraph 3 to specific management measures such as fishing authorisations and catch declarations.

4a) Parliamentary questions - 1 February 2018 - Question for written answer to the Commission – MEP Sylvie Goddyn (ENF):
4b) Answer given by Mr Vella on behalf of the Commission

5) Cod (Gadus morhua) in subdivisions 22–24, western Baltic stock (western Baltic Sea), June 2017 [see table 6 on page 7]

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