A hidden catastrophe is unfolding off the coasts of Britain which could leave our seas filled with only algae and jellyfish, a leading conservation organisation warns today.
The Marine Conservation Society says severe overfishing is the biggest environmental threat facing Britain and is having a profound effect on marine ecosystems.
The warning comes in Silent Seas, a report released as the government prepares its marine bill for parliament.
The report comes the day after the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which advises Europe’s politicians on fish stocks, warned that parts of the North Sea should be closed to mackerel fishing because stocks of the species could be on the brink of collapse.
Simon Brockington, head of conservation at the MCS, said: “There’s a moral imperative: we simply shouldn’t be living in such a way that drives species to extinction.”
The MCS is calling on the government to introduce an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management and to move away from quotas, which it says lead to fisherman dumping stocks overboard.
It also urges temporary closures of sea areas to encourage the regeneration of fish stocks. Willie Mackenzie, fisheries campaigner for Greenpeace, said: “Fishing is the biggest threat after climate change. It has removed many of the bigger and now second-tier fish.”
The report said the rate of loss of fish in British seas was accelerating, with formerly abundant species such as the common skate appearing on lists of endangered species.
Only eight of the total of 47 fish stocks found around the British Isles remain in a healthy state, the report says, adding that the size and quality of the fish is falling as younger fish are taken out of the sea: “A hundred years ago a large plaice had to be 50-60cm long and weigh 1.5-2kg to be considered big. Today plaice fillets are sold as ‘large’ when they weigh just 125g. Fish this size have never had a chance to breed.”
Almost half of all fish eaten is farm-raised, but that does not guarantee sustainability, the MCS says. “Carnivorous fish such as salmon and farmed crustaceans, such as warm water prawn, rely on wild fish to make their feed.
At the moment it can take an average 3kg of wild fish to produce 1kg of farmed salmon.”
Prince Charles, who is president of the MCS, said it was a “wake-up call” that British seas were in need of urgent help.
“There is simply nowhere in Britain’s seas where marine life is effectively protected from human impacts,” he said. “Never has it been so important to take immediate action to protect marine life.”
The Sea Fish Industry Authority said the UK fishing industry was a world leader in responsible sourcing and management of stocks. Its director, Jon Harman, said: “Along with factors such as population change and widespread pollution, we now have stresses caused by climate change.
However, we are proud of how our fishing fleets have responded to increased understanding of their impact on the environment and their cooperation both in terms of voluntary action and investment in new technology.”