Living proof that conservation works

North Sea cod, once on the brink as a result of decades of over-fishing, has now recovered to an extent that the public should start eating it again with enthusiasm, one of the world’s biggest wildlife charities has said.

In a rare wildlife conservation success story, the charity WWF said the fish renowned for its flaky white chunks was being caught sustainably off the shallow cold waters of north and eastern Britain for the first time in a decade. Stocks of the fish have risen by 52 per cent from their historic low four years ago because of a combination of cuts in landing quotas, and conservation techniques which have reduced the number tossed back dead into the sea.

As a result, the EU has increased the British quota for North Sea cod by 16 per cent this year, from 11,216 tonnes to 13,000. Although stocks are still low by historic standards, the recovery could prompt British supermarkets to start stocking North Sea cod again. Most cod in grocery chains and fish and chip shops at present comes from Iceland and the Barents Sea.

Marine scientists said the recovery was evident and welcome, but cautioned the fish was present at only a fraction of its natural level. In a study published in the journal Nature earlier this month, a team from York University estimated that, in 1889, Britain’s fishing fleet was landing twice as much fish as today. Stocks of cod fished by English and Welsh boats have declined by 86 per cent in the past 100 years.

Worldwide fish stocks are falling as ever more rapacious and technologically-advanced fleets chase diminishing shoals. Many naturalists have viewed North Sea cod as symbolic of that over-fishing. A few decades ago, cod was a cheap and plentiful, and vast numbers of British boats set to sea to catch it in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a result, the population collapsed and the spawning bio-mass (adult fish old enough to reproduce) sank from 250,000 tonnes in 1970 to a low of 35,700 tonnes four years ago. Environmentalists feared North Sea cod would go the way of Newfoundland cod, which has not recovered from a collapse 20 years ago.

EU fisheries ministers in Brussels successively cut annual quotas. At the same time, Scottish fishermen, who saw the fleet’s devastation, began to take conservation more seriously. Twenty-two of Scotland’s 122 whitefish boats allowed monitoring cameras on board to prevent them throwing valuable smaller fish overboard, increased mesh size to avoid catching juveniles and fitted panels to allow cod to escape when they were fishing for other species.

North Sea cod has risen from 37,400 tonnes in 2007 to 54,250 tonnes this year. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which advises the EU, estimates the amount required for a recovery is between 70,000 and 150,000 tonnes.

The marine biologist Callum Roberts, at the University of York, said: “Signs of improvement of North Sea cod stocks are encouraging. The sort of measures that they are undertaking in Scotland are good developments.”

He added: “Although the trend is in the right direction, it’s definitely too early to celebrate. That 150,000-tonne target does not really reflect the historic abundance of the population.”

The Marine Conservation Society said it was maintaining its advice not to eat North Sea cod. A fisheries policies officer, Melissa Pritchard, said: “Everyone is doing everything they can and we commend that, but, with fish stocks, it takes years to recover.”

Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, was elated by WWF’s public endorsement. He said fishermen had learned their mistakes from the boom days of the 1970s. “We were all mesmerised by the quantities available and regrettably what happened is that nations and individual businesses increased the size of the fleet.”