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Recreational Sea Angling

November 17 2008

As Recreational Sea Angling increases its footprint within the process of formulating marine fisheries policy, what are the risks?

In last year’s ‘Get Hooked’ guide, I reported how the Government now formally includes Recreational Sea Angling (RSA) as part of the marine fisheries sector. Such recognition, whilst essential if the many legitimate concerns of RSA are to stand any chance of being addressed, also carries risks. Historically ignored and overlooked by Government, the RSA voice has largely been ineffective in the arena of formulating fisheries policy and sea anglers have felt impotent, unable to do anything about the ongoing diminished quality of sea angling due to commercial over fishing. Such a long term feeling of impotence will take a while to shake off.

The plus side of remaining off the radar screen is that our activity has largely remained free of restrictions and responsibilities. There is a dilemma - sea anglers keep their heads down and confine their concerns to moaning over a beer at the bar amongst their own constituents - OR, put their heads above the parapet, organise effective lobbying of decision makers in order to try and bring an end to overfishing. The latter course of action raises the profile of RSA with the risk of attracting suggestions for restrictions.

I take the view that to maintain a low profile for fear of attracting attention whilst the quality of our activity deteriorates is simply not an option. RSA remains a very popular and rewarding activity, BUT it could be much, much better. I would like future sea anglers to experience the quality of sea angling that existed in the south west during the 1960s and early 1970s. If raising the profile of RSA, acquiring a voice in the process of formulating fisheries policies and management measures, means we are more likely to be targeted with restrictions, so be it. RSA must responsibly engage with the decision process to ensure that any suggested restrictions are not unjustly imposed on RSA. I believe the risks are worth taking. The alternative, doing nothing, risks the continuing decline in the quality of our sport.

Current ‘live’ issues for sea anglers include: bass minimum landing size, marine protected areas, sea angling licences, bass bag limits and a Government RSA Strategy.

Bass minimum landing size (mls)

Following DEFRA’s consultation, the Government announced an increase from April this year of the current national mls of 36 cm (approx 1lb-2oz) to 40 cm (approx 1 lb-8oz) for England. The Government also undertook to monitor the situation with a view to increasing the mls by 2010 to 45 cm (2lb-2oz).

Many commercial fishermen vehemently oppose the 40 cm mls, claiming there are insufficient numbers of bass over 40 cm from which to make their living. A few recreational anglers also object because they rarely catch bass over 40 cm. I take the view that if one and a half pound bass really are as scarce as some claim, then that is all the more reason for the increase! Such a small bass (if a female) will not have even matured and potentially will live for a further twenty years by which time it would weigh well into double figures.

Claims that foreign boats will simply hoover up all the bass between 36cm and 40 cm are simply unfounded. Firstly, the latest research shows that the main benefits of management aimed at protecting juvenile bass in our coastal waters accrue chiefly to fisheries operating within the UK 6 mile zone and no foreign vessels are allowed inside the 6 mile zone. In any case, catches of bass taken in off-shore fisheries consisted of negligible proportions of bass less than 40 cm. For many older sea anglers who recall being able to routinely catch 55 – 65 cm bass, 40 cm still seems very small but it is a step in the right direction.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

A hugely complex topic for which there are hundreds, if not thousands, of published papers from across the globe. Essentially, MPAs are areas where some degree of protection from fishing exist, and include measures such as protection from dredging, up to fully closed areas. RSA might gain through reduced competition for fishery resources, improved abundance of fish or improved average size of target species. On the other hand RSA could loose out through loss of access or restrictions on what fish can be retained. An example of an MPA restriction is the Cornwall Sea Fisheries Bylaw that specifies two areas (Manacles & Runnelstone) where no nets with a mesh size less than 250 mm may be deployed. This by-law effectively prevents the targeting of bass in the two areas with nets and was introduced to protect the interests of those who commercially caught bass with hook and line. Undoubtedly, these MPAs are beneficial to sea angling.

Sea Angling Licences

This is understandably one of the most emotive issues being commented on by sea anglers. The forthcoming Marine Bill will almost certainly include the creation of a legislative framework that would allow the Government to introduce a licence for sea anglers if it chose to. Most sea anglers feel aggrieved that this issue appears so high on DEFRA’s agenda so soon after recognition of RSA.

Licences for commercial fishing boats, not the fishermen, were handed out free of charge in the early 1990’s and anglers question the rationale for charging anglers whilst those who exploit the same common fishery resource for profit were given licences. Some proponents of a sea angling licence point out that freshwater anglers have to buy a licence, so why shouldn’t sea anglers? However, the situation in freshwater is very different. Firstly, the licence revenue is collected by the Environment Agency who ring fence funds for improvement of fresh water fisheries.

The Environment Agency is also required to promote and develop recreational angling. Furthermore, all commercial fishing managed by the Environment Agency such as for eels, elvers, salmon and sea trout, unlike marine commercial fishing, have to pay the Government substantial amounts for an annual licence.

Bag limits for bass anglers

Many anglers who fish for bass recreationally, return most of their catches whilst some retain enough for their personal consumption. Rod and line fishing is however a method used to take bass within both the licenced and unlicenced commercial bass fishery. The only licences ever made available were issued to motorised fishing vessels for which the owners were able to provide evidence of having sold fish captured from that vessel. So currently, bass caught from an unlicenced motor vessel can not legally be sold.

However, bass caught from a vessel that is not motorised or caught from the shore, can be legally sold even though the activities are not currently licenced (no licences having been made available for such activities). Those who operate licenced vessels have raised concerns about those who sell bass from unlicenced vessels (illegal) and the authorities are considering the imposition of bag limits for bass upon all unlicenced activities including those of genuinely recreational anglers who do not sell their fish.

The situation is more complex than it may appear at first because when licences were originally issued some 15 years ago, the authorities failed to consider all those who elected to fish commercially from either the shore or a boat without an engine. Arguably, their activities were every bit as valid as those of owners of boats with engines. The situation is even more bizarre because in respect of bass, the only catch restriction for licenced vessels is a maximum of 5 tonnes weekly which is irrelevant for 99.9% of boats who don’t catch that amount a year. RSA representatives are currently trying to establish whether the proponents of bag limits are motivated by a perceived need for ‘conservation’ or whether the bag limit proposal is simply to aid enforcement against those who catch and sell bass from unlicenced motorised boats.

Prior to the mid 1970s, bass were almost entirely an angling species and sea anglers accounted for 90+% of mortality. By the late 1980s anglers and commercial fishing shared the mortality approx 50-50. Latest research suggests that 66% of all fishing mortality derives from commercial fishing. The imposition of bag limits on anglers would likely drive up the proportion of commercial mortality even further, which ironically is totally contradictory to the recommendation of the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit’s report ‘Net Benefits’ which suggested bass may well provide a better return to the UK plc if re-designated wholly recreational.

In other parts of the globe where sea angling bag limits are just one measure amongst a full suite of measures applied to all extractive stakeholders in favour of protecting the abundance and structure of the stock, anglers are only too willing to fulfill their conservation role. For example, in Massachusetts, when fishery managers increased the striped bass bag limit from one to two fish, the main cries of opposition came from the recreational sea anglers.

Recreational Sea Angling Strategy

DEFRA are currently working on a draft Strategy for RSA. The work is being carried out by DEFRA’s Inshore Fisheries Group. This Group consists of a range of stakeholders including commercial fishing, recreational angling, non governmental environmental organizations and statutory organisations. Inevitably, the drafting process will not be easy. Inclusion of recreational sea angling into the process of formulating fishery policy and strategy is breaking new ground for all players and even where this process is further advanced in other parts of the world, the profound and often competing differences between recreational and commercial exploitation make for challenging dialogue.

Later this year, DEFRA’s Strategy for Recreational Sea Angling will be the subject of a full public consultation. DEFRA, together with the scientific institutions that historically support DEFRA, all have enormous experience of commercial fishing, but relatively little understanding of recreational sea angling. Recreational sea angling presents many new challenges and there is urgent need for a research programme to develop robust data for angling catches, viability of catch and release, angling behaviour, angling preferences etc. Ideally, such research should be carried out annually so that a time series data set becomes established to inform the decision process.

May I ask all anglers to keep up to date with developments by logging on to websites such as: