There can be few starker examples of good and bad management in our oceans at present than the case of the American striped bass and its cousin, the European bass. If you want a case of a fish that serves as a model for how science-based fishery management can work, it is the striped bass, which is found off the United States' Eastern Seaboard from Maine to North Carolina. After collapse in the early 1980s, due to fishing pressure and pollution in its main spawning area of Chesapeake Bay, stocks of striped bass have been rebuilt to the point where the recreational fishery alone is now worth over $1 billion a year. A lively debate remains on just how well the 'striper' is managed and how stocks should be divided between recreational or commercial use. But you will struggle to find anyone today who thinks the striped bass is overfished.
Contrast this situation with what has happened to the European bass, a staple of smart restaurant menus, which is prized in Britain and France as a premium saltwater sporting fish. The European bass does not grow to quite the size of its American cousin - the record rod caught specimen weighed 19lb 12 oz, compared with 88lbs for the record striper. But its fighting ability and willingness to take a bait or a fly means it has a devoted following among Britain's two million recreational sea anglers. All the more surprising, then, to find that until this year the most recent stock assessment for this species took place in 2009. When scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) finally got around to assessing it again this year, they found that bass stocks were at their lowest levels for 20 years. A survey of the Solent, one of the most important south coast nursery areas for sea bass off the south coast, by Britain's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), found bass stocks to be "extremely low."
Lesson one of this sorry tale is that Europeans ought to have been monitoring a fish stock as highly prized as this one rather more diligently. So why didn't they? For historical reasons, the bass has been one of those stocks that European member states managed nationally and therefore monitored when and if budgets permitted. What scientists found when they did finally assess bass stocks was that spawning has been knocked back by five or more years of cold winters. Catches, meanwhile, have been rising. The bass is a slow-maturing species that takes at least four years to reach breeding age. It is already too late for there to be healthy numbers of bass for anglers or commercial fishermen until way after 2018, whatever is done to redress the situation in the meantime. And there is a real danger of wiping out the breeding stock completely. There is a need to conserve the older bass, because so few younger ones are coming through.
The reason bass landings have risen nevertheless is due to the development of pair-trawling, the practice of towing a net fast through spawning aggregations of fish. This method, which is practised by French trawlers alongside a few British ones, is a notoriously unselective and poor quality way to catch fish, compared with commercial hook and line fishing. It secures pitiful value from a fish that in the hands of an angler brings more money into the economy. Coupled with this, the recording of landings from anglers and small commercial vessels is murky compared with the accuracy secured by the Americans' striped bass tagging programme.
So the management of the potentially rich resource which is the European bass has been at best shoddy and at worst potentially disastrous. Can it recover in time? The European Union has just taken over the problem from its member states. There is momentum created by an effective reform of the previously-catastrophic Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). But it is quite a task. Scientists project that nothing less than a cut in sea bass landings from 4,060 tons to 2,707 tons in 2014 will suffice. How can this be achieved? France wants the imposition of quotas at the EU ministers' December council - but on the basis of track record, most of this would go to French fishing boats. Britain and Ireland say this is unfair. They argue they have already taken conservation measures, Ireland by making the bass an exclusively recreational species, Britain by imposing net restrictions and a ban on fishing in nursery areas. Britain also wants a ban on trawlers fishing the Channel in the spawning season and limits on the amount each vessel may catch.
It remains to be seen whether the EU can find a compromise in time to keep stocks from terminal collapse. The difference with the United States is a combination of the inherent complexity of many cultures and jurisdictions operating within the same system; an as-yet untried new fisheries law; questionable political will; and less of the sense of citizenship that has made the striped bass in the an issue for the American public in general and not just commercial fishermen.
The case of the European bass shows how difficult it is to apply a conservation lesson from one part of the world to another. This winter, we will see if these learnings can be applied or whether, when it comes to the oceans, mankind will simply go on repeating the same mistakes.