Good news for Bass conservation... but will it last?

Posted on: 14th April 2015

Good news for Bass conservation... but will it last?

Bass off the Lizard, Photograph by Paul Naylor. 

Bass is a fantastic fish, and one which has always been popular. You can’t beat a nice bit of bass fried in butter, it tastes incredible. There are many more reasons why the popularity of bass has been soaring, but sadly its future is far from secure.

Bass (or as they are sometimes incorrectly called, seabass) have a massive following amongst anglers and spearfishermen as prized sport fish. There has also been widespread endorsement by celebrity chefs who love to feature bass on their menus. Additionally, in the last 20 years increasing amounts of farmed bass have appeared on the market following massive expansion of bass aquaculture in the Mediterranean (and now in a smaller scale in the UK). Small, farmed bass are now commonly seen on supermarket shelves and on menus - much smaller than the minimum landing size for their wild counterparts. Farmed bass is a very different product to wild caught bass. They are grown in pools and cages so they often dont get as much excercise as wild fish.  Fish farming techniques are improving, but in many areas have resulted in major environmental damage and there is great controversy surrounding industrial fishing for small fish used in the production of food for farmed fish. Cornwall Good Seafood Guide don’t list farmed bass as it is not produced in Cornwall but it is scored on www.fishonline.org as not recommend unless it is organic certified. Perhaps most worrying for bass stocks is the fact that there is now a market for undersized bass which could be being supplied by illegal fishing operations, and then falsely labelled as farmed.

Bass are highly mobile and migratory, and as a result management for bass needs to work across Europe's shared waters. Currently bass landings are not capped in any way, and a large part of total catch is made by anglers making it difficult to accurately determine the level of fishing.
 
Wild bass are certainly victim of their own popularity and there is increasing evidence that they have been overfished. Fishing effort across Europe’s shared wild bass stocks has increased to such an extent that fisheries scientists are now extremely concerned and are are recommending catches in Europe must be reduced by 80% (ICES 2014). 
 
'Cornwall leads the way in bass conservation'
Thanks to forward thinking legislation brought in by the UK government over half a century ago, six bass nursery areas are protected in Cornwall (in estuaries). We also have bass netting bans in areas where bass congregate such as the Runnelstone (Land's End) and the Manacles (near the Lizard). In Cornwall  and in South Wales we have a larger minimum landing size than in any other area of Europe; set at 37.5cm. It is hard to see how management could be improved in Cornish waters, and fishermen feel that these conservation measures should be applied across Europe, not just here, for the benefit of all the stock.
 

So what is the biggest threat to bass in our area?

For a long time we have been aware of a huge scale commercial fishery for bass that is carried out just off Cornwall’s coastline by fleets of French pair trawlers. Pairs of these efficient and modern vessels pull a huge midwater net between them, which enables them to capture entire shoals of bass when they congregate to spawn in open water. This is a critical life stage for the bass, and it seriously threatens the reproductive potential of the stock to catch them at this time. Pair trawling has also has been shown to have serious issues with bycatch of dolphins and porpoises.  Additionally many anglers are concerend at levels of gill net fishing being carried out in Cornwall close to shore for bass affecting bass stocks. 
 

There is some good news...

The recent good news is that bass conservation has finally moved up the political agenda, and this winter following a challenge by UK Government, the European Commission have prioritised bass management and brought in emergency measures to temporarily close the pair trawl fishery for bass. 
This is fantastic news for now, but what will happen next winter is still uncertain.  At least there is now an acknowledged need for much better management of bass across the whole of Europe. It has been mentioned that potential measures could include raising minimum landing sizes across the EU, capping commercial landings, and imposing a recreational bag limit on anglers but these measures are still in development and will be the responsibilityof member states to agree and enforce. Cornwall Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (CIFCA) are well aware of the issues surrounding bass managment and are the lead organisation managing bass fisheries within Cornwalls waters and estuaries.
 
It is extremely frustrating for Cornish fishermen to be faced with this situation, when here in Cornwall we lead the way in bass conservation, and the majority of our bass fishermen use sustainable methods. Sadly though, until stock levels improve and better European management is brought in, the system we currently use to score fish means that it will be unlikely that bass can be recommended by Cornwall Good Seafood Guide.  In comparison to pair trawling handline fishing for bass takes a tiny percentage of the total EU catch and the method is far more selective and environmentally friendly. If you like eating bass, Cornish line-caught bass is still the best option. You should avoid eating net caught and farmed bass (unless it is organically farmed).
 

Tips if you like eating bass:

The best choice is line-caught Cornish bass – labelled by the South West Handline Fishermen’s Association.
Only buy or eat bass that are larger than minimum size 37.5 cm
Don’t eat farmed bass unless it is certified as organic.
 
You can find out more infomation on bass here.