For reasons that are not certain, environmental conditions at present do not favour the reproduction of cod in the North Sea, Irish Sea, or West of Scotland. This may be connected to increasing water temperatures and the fact that cod in these waters are at the southernmost extent of their geographical range. Scientists tell us that the distribution of cod is moving northward at 12km per year. There are very few cod in the southern North Sea. There is, however, an abundance around Shetland and the Barents Sea and Icelandic stocks are in robust good health. Other species are moving in to occupy the ecological niche previously held by cod.
Management arrangements have yet to adapt to this shifting distributional pattern and we can expect the issue to be front and centre of bilateral negotiations for future annual fisheries agreements. In the meantime, it will be important to steer a careful course which rebuilds cod stocks where this is feasible whilst maintaining viable fishing opportunities for other commercial species in mixed fisheries.
A package of stringent measures has been imposed by EU ministers with the aim of rebuilding cod stocks by constraining fishing pressure. Around half of the fleets that target cod have been scrapped under a decommissioning scheme. Tight restrictions on time at sea, reduced quotas, strict control rules and a range of technical conservation measures apply to the remaining vessels.
A major review of the EU cod recovery plan is under way to decide whether cod, a cold water species, is recoverable in these new environmental conditions and if so, what the best way of achieving recovery might be. Fishermen, through the newly formed regional advisory councils, will be part of that review process.
Other Fish in the Sea
Cod is a voracious predator and is currently depleted; this may, in part, account for the fact that species eaten by cod, or which compete for the same food sources, are now reasonably abundant. Prawns, haddock, herring, mackerel, saithe (coley), lobster, crab, monkfish, whiting (in some areas), and some sole stocks, are all currently well within safe biological limits.
It is also worth recalling that it is only the major commercial stocks that are subject to quota control. For many fishing vessels, up to 60% of their catch are from species which scientists consider do not need quotas.
In other words, despite the problems faced by some cod fisheries, there is a wide range of alternative species available to UK consumers from sustainable stocks. It is also worth bearing in mind too that most cod consumed in the UK is and always has been, sourced from fisheries like Iceland and North Norway which are considered by scientists to be fished within safe biological limits.
Photo credit: Seafish