Science - September 13, 2009

North Sea flatfish stocks recover

Flatfish in the North Sea are no longer on the danger list, thanks to reduced pressure from fishing. Stocks of plaice and sole in particular are well above the critical level again.

Once again, that crispy pan-fried plaice can be savoured with a clear conscience now that the flatfish stocks in the North Sea, especially sole and plaice, have recovered. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has issued a new advice that flatfish catches in 2010 may be increased. The overhaul in the fishing fleet is seeing results. '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 visionless short-term policy for fish stocks were soon obvious. Various fish species found it hard to survive and their numbers dwindled below the level at which which enabled sufficient young fish to be born.
Politicians changed this short-term policy when UN-related international agreements established the principle of precaution in fisheries. 'This precautionary principle requires managers to heed different types of uncertainties, e.g. a small birth rate would mean that a bigger buffer is required', explains Rijnsdorp. '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 the 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 obvious now.
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 for individual species used by the EU 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.' Fisheries management should also be more concerned about the effects of the fishing industry on the ecosystem.
 
 
 
 

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