The European sea bass is an important commercial fish species. It is also one of the most important fish species for recreational fishermen in the UK due to its “famed fighting prowess”.
The species is thought to be particularly vulnerable to over-fishing. It is not possible to fully assess the health of the sea bass population at this stage due to a lack of evidence. However, the available evidence suggests that there has been a population decline in recent years. An international scientific body (ICES) recommended that bass catches in the North East Atlantic be reduced by 20% in 2013 to protect the stock. In 2014, the same scientific advisory body recommended that a sea bass management plan was urgently needed to reduce the fish mortality, recommending that bass catches in the North Sea and English Channel be reduced by 80% in 2015.
A minimum landing size (MLS) of 36 cm was introduced in 1990 to protect the stock, along with a range of other measures. Sport fishing bodies, whose members highly value the challenge offered by larger fish, have campaigned to increase the MLS for bass. They argue that many adult female sea bass do not breed until they are at least 40-45 cm, and that increasing the MLS to 45 cm will help to ensure that more females can breed before they are caught. Such a change would have economic implications for some commercial fishermen.
In 2011, the Government launched a national survey of sea angling in England. This report assessed the number of people sea angling, catch data and the economic and social value of sea angling. This report – Sea Angling 2012 – was published on 27 November 2013. The Government also launched an assessment of sea bass stocks to determine whether the MLS should be increased. The Government deposited this report into the House of Commons Library following the Westminster Hall debate on management of UK Sea bass stocks on 3 December 2014. This debate reflected cross-party support for sea bass conservation measures.
Negotiations on the introduction of technical measures to preserve bass fish stocks have been ongoing in the European Commission since 2012. The Government was unable to secure an agreement on the Commission’s proposed technical measures – a one-fish bag limit for recreational sector and catch limits for the commercial sector – at the December 2014 EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council Meeting.