IN my last TCW article I said I would explain how we can avoid killing small juvenile fish. The events which brought this subject into public consciousness go back over 30 years, when research was far easier. Essentially, each species of fish is allocated a Minimum Landing Size (MLS), which is ideally the size the fish reach one or two years after being able to breed. Any fish caught below the MLS had to be thrown back into the sea, dead, along with any other species caught for which you have no quota. They thus ended up being a pollutant, or at best, sea bird food.
This was clearly a ridiculous and immoral situation. In an attempt to find a solution, two top divers from the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen built themselves an underwater vehicle in which both could sit. The vehicle would be towed by a fishing vessel and one would be filming while the other steered. Their pioneering research was the first study of the reaction of different species of fish to fishing gear. They conducted trials on the west coast of Scotland, and the results were remarkable.
To understand the significance of this research, it is important to understand how nets (trawls) are constructed. Those who have been to coastal harbours will have seen netting lying around. The material used in the construction of netting these days is called diamond mesh. The material is very strong and is also able to concertina in and out according to the strains placed on it. The first problem which the researchers discovered related to the behaviour of fish as the opening in the netting opens and closes. When the opening closes and a fish tries to escape from the net, it pushes through the mesh and when it thinks it is through, it gives a flick with its tail. However, if the mesh has closed before the fish actually has escaped, the flick will result in scales coming off its tail, which then goes septic, and the fish dies. Another problem concerned the raising of nets from the sea bed. In round fish such as cod, coley and haddock, the swim bladder ruptures as they are hauled to the surface whereas flat fish do not suffer to the same degree and thus a higher percentage survive.
By turning the mesh through 90 degrees, it now tows on the square and this has the advantage of the opening staying the same size. In this position, the mesh is not very strong. However, by strategically placing sections of square mesh within an otherwise diamond mesh trawl, it proved possible to come up with a design of net which allowed the small fish to escape. Unfortunately, this brilliant solution fell foul of regulations on the permissible size of netting used. For example, diamond mesh of 90mm will capture smaller fish than square mesh of 90mm. The optimum size for the square mesh would have been 80mm, but the authorities would not permit this.
Another finding by the Aberdeen divers was that haddock swim upwards when trying to escape, whereas cod seek to escape by going downwards. Separator trawls were designed with a panel inserted horizontally throughout the trawl, with two cod-ends, one top section for haddock and one at the bottom for cod (Cod ends are the end of the trawl, where the catch ends up, and is emptied into where the catch is sorted.)
The Canadians took this research further. They were concerned about their shrimp fishery, which was particular heavy on the slaughter of juvenile fish. By placing a metal grid, set at a given angle, in the tube of the trawl before the cod end, with a hole cut in the top of the tube, the shrimp go through the grid, to be retained in the cod end, while the fish escape through the hole, free to go on living. The Americans adapted this system further to allow turtles to escape from fishing nets.
If these technical innovations had been introduced at that time we would have saved thousands of tons of small fish, but there was no desire whatever to improve the situation for our fishermen because it would have removed what from the EU’s point of view was a beneficial crisis. The message that there were ‘too many vessels chasing too few fish’ would have been spoilt by this beneficial measure. This was the time Spain was being accommodated into the Common Fisheries Policy, bringing with it a huge fishing fleet but very little extra resource other than third country agreements. The message that fish were being dumped unnecessarily was a convenient way for the EU – with the full connivance of the British government of the time – legitimately to get rid of the British fleet under the name of conservation.
Britain was the innovator in this technology, but because we were tied to the Common Fisheries Policy through our membership of the then EEC, now EU, we could not take the initiative, as fisheries was an EU competence and we had obligations under our accession treaty.
It was not just UK fishermen who suffered when Spain joined the EEC. In 1990, I had to travel to Mozambique to join a trawler managed by the South Africans for Spanish interests. I flew in from South Africa. It was near the end of their civil war, so armed troops were still everywhere. I was on one of only two functioning aircraft owned by the Mozambique authorities. I was told they had a third, but it was shot down. In those days you could take small animals on board with you. I sat next to a rather large lady who had a chicken in a flimsy basket. When she went to the toilet she asked me to look after the chicken, which I duly did. You don’t find that skill in the exporters’ manual guide! After the plane landed, I took an open boat down the very wide river estuary to the waiting trawler offshore. En route I was intrigued by a few dug-out canoes, with one or two on board, fishing with a line, hoping to catch a meal for the day. We passed a village on the river bank from which I presumed was home for these native fishermen.
The trawler was fishing for large tropical prawns only, but we caught a lot of fish too which we dumped dead back into the sea. That could have easily been avoided but no one cared, so the trawler carried on dumping. A requirement to separate the prawns from other species should have been a condition of European aid, but from what I witnessed in that part of the world, the whole system of aid, especially European, appeared corrupt.
On the return journey, we called in to the village on the river bank. The people were delightful and made me very welcome, but I often wonder if there are any fish left to feed that village.
Another area in which I worked was off the coast of Mauritania, on Spanish vessels which were fishing for octopus, under the first EU/Mauritanian fisheries agreement. The illegal overfishing and bribery that took place was horrendous.
Therein lies the problem with the Common Fisheries Policy, a rigid political structure that works against nature. EU third country agreements read well and seem full of good intentions, but in practice they work against the indigenous population. When you witness the damage mankind has inflicted on the marine resources, you wonder what you could achieve if you worked with nature instead of against it. I have always marvelled at the ability of nature to survive mankind’s greed and incompetence.
Separating species on the sea bed is possible when you have only two species to separate, possibly three. Within UK waters, we have far more than that in our bottom fishery. That is why the EU quota system causes management problems. There is no flexibility, so technical measures, while helping alleviate the problem, are not sufficient. The whole fisheries management system needs changing. This can happen only with a clean and proper Brexit, whereby we would become once again a nation state, upholding national sovereignty and operating a fisheries management system based on effort, not quotas, as proposed by Fishing for Leave. In such a system, fishermen, scientists, legislators and enforcers must, and can, work with each other, setting the example. At the moment, everyone is working against everyone else, while the EU pursues its integrationist vision, with the damage to the UK fishing industry being regarded as acceptable collateral damage.