Science - September 15, 2009

More flatfish in the North Sea

More plaice and sole are being found in the North Sea, due to less fishing.

Out of plaice
Once again, we can savour that crispy pan-fried plaice with a clear conscience. Flatfish stocks in the North Sea, especially sole and plaice, have recovered, according to fisheries biologists. This is the result of an overhaul in the fishing fleet. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which promotes and coordinates fisheries research, will therefore allow more flatfish catches in 2010.
'North Sea fisheries management has improved enormously in the last few years', says Adriaan Rijnsdorp, IMARES researcher and associate professor at Wageningen UR. 'There was a period when ministers ignored scientifically based fishing quotas.' The consequences of their short-term and short-sighted policy for fish stocks were soon obvious. Various fish species found it hard to survive and their numbers dwindled below the level at which sufficient young fish were born.
Politicians changed this short-term policy at the start of the 21 st Century when fishing nations agreed at UN level to apply the principle of precaution in fisheries.
'This precautionary principle requires managers to heed different types of uncertainties, e.g. a low birth rate would mean that a bigger buffer is required', explains Rijsdorp. 'A multiple year plan was implemented to reduce the fishing intensity, and this has been carried out successfully.' Reorganization of the fishing fleet went well, partly due to high oil prices which drove many fishermen to stop fishing. Fewer fishermen meant that the fish stock had time to recover, and now the first signs of positive developments are appearing.
Despite the good news, Rijnsdorp advises against complacency as there is more room for improvement in European fisheries management. He feels that the fishing quota policy for individual species has loopholes. An example: 'A flatfish fisherman has reached his plaice quota but not his sole quota. In the process of fishing for more sole, he catches more plaice in his net and throws them back, dead, into the sea because he would not be able to sell them.'

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