Are wrasse the new bass?

Wild caught turbot, sea bass and lobsters are expensive fish with first sale prices (what fishermen receive) regularly of £14 per kilo, £17 per kilo and £15 per kilo respectively.

But now, a species that has since time immemorial been a firm favourite for recreational sea anglers and has attracted minimal interest from commercial fishing is attracting prices that make turbot, sea bass and lobsters appear cheap enough for cat food!

The latest ‘new earner’ is the lowly wrasse that lives in rocky terrain that has never achieved widespread acceptance as good eating. It can be a spectacularly beautiful fish and its accessibility close to shore and willingness to take a bait has contributed to it being both the ‘starter’ fish for budding anglers whilst larger specimens are targeted by specialist anglers. Almost every single wrasse taken by rod and line is returned alive.

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Wrasse are a truly stunning group of fish

Now, this little known and studied fish is making heads turn in stark amazement as it can be worth a whopping mind blowing £150 per kilo – yes, £150,000 per tonne! (Source MMO landings data)

A selection of individual landings from MMO data.

         Landing (Kg)             Value of landing                                       Value per ton (£)                              706                               £61,446                                                         87,000

201                            £26,195                                                         130,00

348                               £45,483                                                         131,000

120                               £16,967                                                         141,000

520                                £77,926                                                        150,000

260                                £38,060                                                        146,000

          420                               £54,803                                                         130,000

Now, this little known and studied fish is making heads turn in stark amazement as it can be worth a whopping mind blowing £150 per kilo – yes, £150,000 per tonne!

More than a decade ago, Defra funded a £1.6 million multi-stakeholder project called Invest in Fish that included a study of Recreational Sea Angling (RSA) in the south west. Wrasse were the favourite species to target by almost 10,000 resident sea anglers and were responsible for over 30,000 days spent sea angling by visitors to the region. The combined expenditure from both resident and visitor sea anglers targeting a range of species including wrasse throughout the south west was £165 million, so wrasse are a highly valuable sea fishery resource for the south west leisure and tourism industry. This is a truly sustainable use of the south west natural fishery resources as at least 97% of wrasse are returned alive.

So sea anglers are understandably very worried about yet another historically important angling species that is threatened by rapidly growing commercial interest.

RSA is a truly sustainable use of the south west natural fishery resources as at least 97% of wrasse are returned alive.

How confident can we be that this developing fishery will be managed sustainably?

Well, let us consider this question from what Defra constantly refer to as “Evidence-based decision making”. If evidence of fisheries management is anything to go by – We CAN’T BE CONFIDENT AT ALL!

On the contrary, the evidence suggests the wrasse will be fished down rapidly whilst fisheries managers twiddle their thumbs and demonstrate the usual political impotence to place the wellbeing of fishery resources above that of appeasing commercial fishing interests.

Jamie Pincombe 2

Wrasse are among the most popular Recreational Sea Angling species in the south west, and the advent of lure fishing for wrasse has caused a new sector of specialist lure angling to develop.

Bass stocks were not so long ago mainly of interest to recreational anglers – then, in the mid-seventies, they began to gain popularity amongst consumers and an attractive price resulted in escalating interest from commercial fishers. Coincidentally, a new fishing gear arrived on the scene in the form of monofilament netting at a similar time, which added to increased fishing effort on the stocks. Anglers started to make representation to Government,or more accurately the department responsible (or more accurately ‘irresponsible’) for fisheries management, which was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Fisheries (MAFF).

The inevitable happened and in 2014 the International Council for Exploration of Sea (ICES) who provide the science for UK/EU fisheries warned that bass stocks were in free fall.

Among the repeated requests to MAFF by the voices of RSA was that the then Minimum Landing Size (MLS) of 26cm should be increased substantially to a size that allowed females to reproduce before being subjected to fishing mortality. A decade later during which time commercial effort and landings had increased exponentially, the MLS was increased to a paltry 32cm – still represented by a female sea bass some four years short of maturity. Another decade passed with anglers remonstrating with MAFF and then Defra and in 1990 the MLS was raised again to an inadequate 36cm. A few fortuitous years of above average production, climate induced, saw bass become one of the most lucrative inshore commercial fisheries and the angler’s warnings of what might happen if a succession of poor year classes materialised were repeatedly dismissed.  The inevitable happened and in 2014 the International Council for Exploration of Sea (ICES) who provide the science for UK/EU fisheries warned that bass stocks were in free fall.

One of a number of management measures implemented was an increase in the minimum size that bass were allowed to be retained and sold to 42cm (approx 750 g).  On Defra’s website, the 42cm is now proudly held up as the desirable minimum size “to allow females an opportunity to spawn”.   You couldn’t make it up!  That is precisely what RSA has been advocating should happen to a succession of Governments for almost half a century!

Unfortunately, the institutionalised default position by fisheries managers is to prioritise short term earning opportunities for commercial fishing rather than take action to responsibly look after our natural fishery resources, the nation’s natural capital.

If an ‘evidence-based’ assessment of Defra’s competence was made based on their performance the only conclusion that could be reached is that Defra are unfit for purpose.

So the future of wrasse is an uncertain one. To date, the vast majority of live wrasse harvest has been carried out in Scotland. One has to ask why is the market now seeking to source supplies from Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and south coast?   Transporting live wrasse to Scotland is a logistical challenge and must be expensive. If supplies from sources relatively local to the market are being harvested sustainably as claimed, why look to sources 600+ miles away?  Perhaps it is because supplies are already drying up from local waters?

Wrasse campaign graphic

If you want to help bring an end to this appalling use of a public resource, please get involved in the Angling Trust’s Help Save our Wrasse campaign. We’re all being encouraged to write to the councillors who sit on the relevant IFCAs and can influence policy to tell them how important wrasse are to us as a sport fish. Full details are on the campaign webpage – here.

There’s also a petition for us all to sign – available here.

Let’s stand strong together now before wrasse goes the same way as so many of our favourite species.

malcolm-gilbert Malcolm Gilbert | August 2017

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