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Has the Tide Turned in Support of Recreational Sea Angling?

08.12.14

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Trawler at sea (image used for illustrative purposes only)

Something remarkable happened in Parliament this week.  There was a debate about the parlous state of our bass stocks and every MP who spoke in the chamber supported dramatic reductions in commercial fishing, writes Angling Trust Chief Executive Mark Lloyd.  Many went further and proposed that bass should be only be legally caught by rod and line because recreational angling is so much more valuable to the economy and to society.  No, you’re not dreaming.  It really happened!

This was a far cry from sea fisheries debates of the past which saw MPs almost climbing over each other to demand that commercial fishermen in their constituencies should be allowed to carry on exploiting dwindling stocks without regulation.

bass 160 px x 130pxThis is a huge moment for sea anglers.  For years we have been ignored in the public debate.  For decades MPs have been completely immersed in the idea that the commercial fishing sector is a vital part of our rural economy and Fisheries Ministers have been deaf to the repeated calls from fisheries scientists and sea anglers to rein in the unsustainable activities of the trawlers.  Commercial fishing was seen as a great provider of jobs and prosperity and – in the short-term mind set of our political system – they have resisted any serious constraints on commercial fishing.  They ignored sea anglers, thinking of us as a small group of irrelevant hobbyists, making fanciful claims about declines in fish stocks.

Wednesday’s debate was the complete opposite.  Our elected representatives seem to have undergone a collective epiphany.  George Hollingbery, the MP for Meon Valley who, to his great credit, called the debate, spoke passionately and eloquently of the disastrous state of affairs:

“We are fishing more, we are increasingly targeting sea bass, we are specifically fishing out breeding shoals and we are not allowing the young stock to reach spawning age… There could not be a worse way of managing a fishery that we apparently want to keep for the longer term.”

Former Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, looked back to the terrible decision by his successor Jonathan Shaw to reduce the Minimum Landing Size for bass back in 2007 when he should have increased it:

“All I can say to the current Minister is, “Please learn the lessons of that mistake and go for an increase in the minimum landing size.” It is absolutely insane that we allow people to catch the vast majority of bass before they even reach spawning size.”

There was widespread support in the debate for an increased Minimum Landing Size and measures to stop the exploitation of spawning fish to be introduced urgently, both of which are key pillars of the arguments we have been making, along with the Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society, for the past decade.  The Angling Trust will be pressing Minister Eustice to make bass a recreational-only species in the weeks to come and at the annual fisheries debate later in December.  
The tone of the debate on bass was music to our ears, but even more significant was the clear realisation among MPs that sea angling is actually worth far more to our economy and our society than commercial fishing.

Richard Benyon MP 200pxRichard Benyon (r) highlighted the economic case for action by quoting from a report commissioned by the Blue Marine Foundation with support from the Angling Trust in the past few months about the fishery in Sussex.  This showed that between 258 and 267 tonnes of fish were harvested commercially in 2012, and somewhere between 10 and 19 tonnes were harvested recreationally. Taking the median of those two, about 5.7% were landed from the recreational sector. As Benyon pointed out, what is really important is that the economic output per tonne in Sussex is 40 to 75 times higher for recreational than commercial. The employment that is generated, calculated per tonne, is 39 to 75 times higher for recreational bass fisheries than commercial.

The report states clearly that the final economic and employment impacts of recreational bass fisheries in Sussex are estimated at £31.3 million and 353 full time equivalent jobs. The final economic employment impacts of commercial bass fisheries in Sussex were estimated as £9.25 million and 111.28 full-time equivalents. 

John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham, also referred to economic arguments to make the case for conservation and quoted from DEFRA’s “Sea Angling 2012” report, which shows that there are 884,000 sea anglers in England, pumping £1.23 billion per annum directly into the economy, supporting 10,400 full-time jobs.”

These economic reports, which the Angling Trust has helped compile and publicise, at last seem to have been taken on board by our politicians.  The simple fact is that although commercial fishing looks like an important industry, because it uses boats and cranes in busy harbours and ports, the sea angling industry is actually far larger.  Sea angling is just less conspicuous, because although there are nearly a million people fishing, they do it in very remote places, quietly spending money in rural economies and supporting small businesses.  What’s more, sea angling does far less damage to fish stocks and doesn’t destroy the sea bed habitat, or strangle dolphins in nets.  It is wonderful news that our politicians have now grasped this.

This cataclysmic shift in political thinking has taken years to achieve.  Part of the reason is that the evidence is now so stark: trusted scientific bodies agree that if we don’t stop netting bass then the stocks will disappear.  But I believe there is more to it than that.  Politicians have been receiving stark warnings from scientists and angling organisations for years.  I believe that it is the Angling Trust’s regular briefings of MPs and officials, our campaigns to get our members to write to their MPs, our co-ordination of the All Party Parliamentary Angling Group, our support for research reports such as Fishing for Answers, Sea Angling 2012 and the MRAG study, and numerous meetings with Ministers that have tipped the consensus towards the concerns of sea anglers at last.

Several MPs referred to the Angling Trust in the debate on Wednesday.  For example, Richard Benyon said of his time as a Minister: “I do not think I would have known about the problem until it reached its present stage if it had not been for the Angling Trust coming to see me with a group of people who really know what is going on.”  

If you venture onto the sea angling forums, you will get the impression from a small but loud group that the Angling Trust has not been doing anything for sea angling, that it is only concerned with coarse (or game, or match, or specialist – take your pick) angling and even a number of conspiracy theories that we are actually trying to destroy sea anglers’ rights.  I hope that the debate on Wednesday demonstrates that these criticisms are complete nonsense.  We mean business and we’re doing a professional and credible job to turn the tide in favour of conservation and sea angling and away from the decades of unsustainable commercial exploitation of fish stocks.  The arguments about bass relate to countless other species of importance to recreational sea anglers, like bream, cod, mullet and plaice.  We will be continuing to use them over the months and years to come to make the case for conservation measures that follow scientific advice to be introduced urgently to protect stocks for the good of anglers, and for the long term future of commercial fishing.

All this work costs money.  We have to pay staff, travel expenses and produce campaign materials.  We could do far more if we had more money to do it.  If you are a sea angler, you need to join us now.  Not tomorrow, not soon, not when you get round to it, but now, today, this minute.  It costs just £25 a year and we really need your support.

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Angling Trust Chief Executive Mark Lloyd


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