A big thank you to everyone who supported our campaign against the Government changing the law to allow commercial shore netters to land and sell sea bass.

Unfortunately, the Government has gone ahead and made a law that says the prohibition on landing and selling bass “does not apply to by-catches in shore-based fixed gillnets(3) that are not set from a vessel of –

  1. up to –
    1. 26 nets in relation to the IFC authority for the North West,
    2. 5 nets in relation to the IFC authority for the North East, and
    3. 1 net in relation to the IFC authority for Devon and Severn, and
  2. up to 50 nets in the Welsh zone.

This legislation seems to us to be ill-founded and incoherent. World class fisheries management? We don’t think so, for the reasons set out below.

Unlimited catches allowed, including during the spawning season

When the Government originally proposed allowing commercial shore netters to land and sell “unavoidable” bass bycatch, it suggested a limit of 250kg of bass a month, a figure we thought was ridiculously high for true bycatch. But to our astonishment and dismay, the Government’s new law allows individual commercial shore netters to land and sell unlimited amounts of bass. And to make things worse, the commercial shore netters can land bass all year long, with no closure during the spawning season! It is difficult to reconcile this with the sustainability objective in the Fisheries Act.

This new law surely makes no sense at all, when the bass stock is still in a fragile state, sea anglers are restricted to 2 bass a day and a 9-month season and other commercial fishermen have tight catch limits?

Discrimination against recreational fishing

The Government has told us the purpose of this law is to stop bass bycatch in commercial shore nets being wasted. But why the focus on commercial shore netting rather than all shore netting? A law that allows only commercial shore netters to land bass bycatch is discriminatory against recreational shore netting.

The evidence for NWIFCA and Wales suggests there is more recreational shore netting than commercial shore netting. So if the Government’s goal was to stop bass from shore nets being wasted, why didn’t the Government prioritise allowing recreational netters to land bass bycatch? The Government has never mentioned to us the bass bycatch from recreational shore nets.

NB we should note here that we dislike shore netting in any form.

A green light to illegally target bass

We have repeatedly told the Government that allowing fixed netters to land bycatch, but then not defining what is and isn’t bycatch, gives those fishermen a green light to illegally target bass and land it as “bycatch”. Cornwall IFCA has said “Whilst no definition exists, there is no option but to treat EU monthly or annual bass bycatch allowances as straightforward catch limits, regardless of any other fish landed.”

In December 2020, the Government said “applying an unavoidable bycatch condition to the gillnetting derogation rather than focusing on the desired outcome from the netting annual limits themselves has been a flawed management concept” and described the undefined “unavoidable bycatch” criterion as “ineffective”.

So why on earth has the Government just made another “bycatch” law, this time for commercial shore netters, when that will be ineffective too? Because Parliament has not defined “bycatch”, we believe this law will be completely unenforceable.

We need a percentage of catch restriction to stop commercial shore netters and fixed netters targeting bass – the same concept that is used successfully to limit bass bycatch landings in the bottom trawling and seining fisheries.

Why did the Government push repeatedly for this law?

Prior to the 2017 ban, in Holderness a commercial shore netting fishery was taking place under permits for “a net for taking intertidal sea bass”. Indeed the permit application form was titled “Application for an Intertidal Fixed Netting Permit for Sea Bass”. So it appears to us the byelaw was permitting a targeted bass fishery, not a bass bycatch fishery.

Did the Government succumb to lobbying from a handful of commercial shore netters in Holderness, supported by local MPs and NEIFCA, and then fail to address the legitimate concerns of sea anglers protesting that this law change would open the door to illegal targeting of bass by commercial shore netters? If so, that would be no way to make fisheries management decisions.

The Government told us its position reflected regional drivers: Welsh Administration and NWIFCA shore-netting issues as well, rather than solely the five Holderness shore netters. But NWIFCA has told us it did not lobby the Government and it has recently said of the law change: “there is no legislative framework for issuing permits across the district and officers believe that this would not be bycatch and be a directed fishery targeting bass which is a contravention of the agreements set with EU member states.” So it seems clear that NWIFCA was not seeking this law change.

And the Welsh Government has told us shore netting in Wales “is largely non-commercial” and that there are likely to be far fewer than 50 nets set at any one time. So we think it unlikely the Welsh Government was pushing hard for a law change to benefit commercial shore netters.

If the Government didn’t succumb to lobbying by and on behalf of the commercial shore netters in Holderness, and it appears that NWIFCA and Wales were not pushing for the law change, what reason was there for the Government to repeatedly pursue this law change? And why does the law only allow commercial shore netters to land bass, not recreational shore netters?

Increasing bass mortality

Bass is one of the most valuable fish available to most commercial shore netters and therefore a key driver for them. We believe the 2017 ban on shore netters landing bass has reduced commercial shore netting activity and thereby reduced bass mortality:

  • In NEIFCA district, the shore netting fishery that was landing bass has been closed.
  • In December 2019, NWIFCA noted: “Beach nets – very little activity observed due to the bass regulations and the fact that fishermen who would usually set nets for pot bait/plaice were working on the cockle bed.

For these reasons, we believe the Government’s reversal of the bass ban landing for commercial shore netters will inevitably increase effort and therefore bass mortality, not just allow current levels of true bycatch to be landed.

Juvenile bass mortality

In October 2002, the North East Sea Fisheries Committee (NEIFCA’s predecessor) carried out experimental shore netting for bass “to examine the potential viability of a sea bass fishery”. NESFC reported: “the gill-netted fish were generally dead or were unlikely to survive” and “the majority of bass caught were less than 42cm” i.e. juvenile bass.

Because the new law has no definition of “bycatch”, it will in practice allow commercial shore netters to target bass (claiming it is bycatch), when there is evidence that shore netting for bass kills mostly juvenile bass. How does this fit with the sustainability objective in the Fisheries Act, which requires fishing to be “environmentally sustainable in the long term” ?

Catch Reporting

The UK has committed to the EU that it will introduce catch reporting for the commercial shore netters allowed to land bass and will monitor the impact of these changes in 2021. We look forward to hearing how this will be done.

We note that in Wales there is currently no permit systems or catch reporting for any commercial shore netters, so we will be watching with interest to see how the Welsh Government proceeds.

A pointless debacle?

In England, this new law may end up being almost entirely pointless. Of the possible 32 commercial shore nets that would in theory be able to land and sell bass in England, 26 are in NWIFCA district and NWIFCA officers have indicated commercial shore netting of bass would be targeted and not legal – and so it seems unlikely NWIFCA will issue permits allowing shore netters to land bass. And in NEIFCA district, if the commercial shore netting fishery there was targeting bass, it would be illegal for that to recommence (since the new law only allows bycatch to be landed). That leaves one commercial shore net in Devon and Severn IFCA district.

Why hasn’t the Government focused on more important issues like collecting data on bass discards to find ways of reducing them, or stopping fixed netters targeting bass as they travel along the South coast on their way to offshore spawning areas?

Evidence-based fisheries management

We believe the Government knows very little about shore netting in England and Wales, because it is mostly an unregulated activity and there is very little available data.

If the Government wants to make improvements in shore netting fisheries, the first thing it should do is require all shore netters to report their catches. This would provide the data needed for World-class fisheries management of shore netting.

Conclusion

We believe the new law is bad law. And we have grave concerns about the way this policy decision was made. This is not the way to gain the trust or support of sea anglers.

World class fisheries management requires:

  • good quality data
  • proper consultation with all stakeholders
  • transparent and evidence-led decision-making
  • clear legislation that can be easily enforced.