David  Milne Cod

Source: MSC 

The fishery is expected to lose its MSC certification in Spetember after a collapse in fish numbers

A combination of climate change and a failure to reduce fishing pressures on stocks is thought to be behind the collapse in North Sea cod numbers, industry commentators have suggested.

Just over two years after the fishery regained MSC certification as sustainable, independent auditors are expected to suspend its accreditation on 24 September following a steep fall in spawning stock biomass.

The fishery’s recovery had been touted as a success story back in 2017 and an example of industry collaboration, with a series of quota limits and fishing ground closures helping stocks recover from a low of just 43,739 tonnes in 2006 to 167,711 tonnes in 2017 [ICES].

However, fish numbers had since fallen to an estimated 136,231 tonnes for 2019, said ICES. This prompted the body to issue new advice at the end of June showing the fishery had fallen below the point at which recruitment – the addition of young fish to the mature population – had a high likelihood of being impaired. ICES has recommended a 63% reduction in the fishery’s total allowable catch.

The fall in numbers represented a “harsh lesson” for the industry, said Marine Conservation Society head of fisheries Samuel Stone who called for “legally binding commitments to fish at sustainable levels”.

’Overestimated’ stocks

Stock size had also initially been overestimated by ICES, suggested Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation CEO John Anderson, with “quotas being subsequently set higher than they should have been”. This had been compounded by the effects of climate change on the stock, he added.

The sector was working with government, scientists and NGOs to develop “measures that will ensure stock is harvested sustainably and allowed to rebuild to the point where certification will once more be achievable”, Anderson said.

The process of creating a fisheries improvement project was already underway, said the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group.

“While we understand the drop in stocks is disappointing news for industry, it is imperative effective measures are introduced to secure the long-term sustainability of this iconic and ecologically important fishery,” said MSC programme director for the UK and Ireland Erin Priddle.

“We await the outcome [of independent audits] and look forward to working with all involved once the auditors publish their reports. Protecting North Sea cod for this and future generations must be a key priority for all involved.”