NORTH Sea cod is set to lose its sustainability certification after stocks “dropped below the safe biological level”.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificates will be suspended from 24 October.
This has led to concerns being raised that North Sea cod could lose popularity with supermarkets.
The MSC said the “causes of the decline are unclear, however scientists suggest it may be a result of factors, such as warming waters – driven by climate change – and fewer young cod surviving into adulthood for the last two years running”.
It added that the drop has occurred despite industry initiatives to actively avoid catching juvenile fish, which is said to be critical in the reproduction cycle and overall health of the stock.
The fishery only received MSC certification in 2017 as she stock reached 152,207 tonnes – the highest since 1982.
The latest scientific advice shows a stock of only 81,224 tonnes, the MSC said.
Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins, however, said earlier this month that it was “risible” that North Sea cod was endangered.
He said on Wednesday in response to the MSC news: “In Shetland we have more interest in the sustainability of North Sea cod than anyone else, and insist that the view of so-called experts stuck in front of computers many miles away is plain wrong.
“Three points have to be borne in mind while rushing to judgement in an unthinking way: one, the cod stock is moving swiftly northwards, away from the southern North Sea and into the northern part, particularly around Shetland. Scientists are failing to take proper account of that shift in their sampling programmes.
“Two, scientists are measuring the cod stock against an arbitrary target derived from sea conditions 20 years ago, when other, competing stocks were by no means as abundant as they are now, and three, scientific assessments of many species, including mackerel only a year ago, have been shown to be horribly wrong in retrospect. This is because the modelling process takes little or no account of what fishermen are actually reporting at sea.
“We have absolutely no wish to destroy our own businesses by claiming that fish are there when they are not. We are calling for a thorough review of the scientific modelling that produces such wayward assessments far removed from real ocean conditions. According to the scientists themselves, there are at least 180 million North Sea cod out there – hardly a species under threat.”
UK and Ireland programme director for the MSC Erin Priddle said after the organisation suspended the certification that the “decline in the North Sea cod stock is a worrying development, with the latest stock models suggesting that the fishery has not recovered as well as previously thought”.
“The MSC programme was established to recognise and reward sustainable fisheries and is designed to identify when certified fisheries are not performing as they should against our Standard,” she added.
“The independent auditors have now examined the latest advice and concluded that this drop in the stock – below the safe biological level – coupled with a recommended sharp cut to quotas and management shortfalls means that the North Sea cod fishery no longer meets the MSC Standard.
“While this news is devastating for industry, it is a testament to the MSC Standard working as it should: to pick up on threats to stock sustainability, as is the case with North Sea cod.
“It is imperative that industry works collaboratively with fishery managers, NGOs and the wider seafood supply chain to introduce effective measures that will see this fishery once again achieve certification. Now, more than ever, we need coordination and cooperation for the sustainability of our oceans and the marine life within.”
Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group chairman Mike Park said: “The industry are concerned that notwithstanding their best efforts to continue to rebuild North Sea cod some developments are taking place that seem beyond their control.
“That said, they are committed to introducing balanced and proportionate measures in an attempt to reverse the decline. We will be liaising closely with managers to ensure that these measures apply to all vessels operating within the mixed demersal fishery.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said the loss of accreditation was “very disappointing”.
“We are working with the industry and with other fishing nations to establish the multi-national response needed to ensure sustainable fishing while maintaining economic fleet viability,” they added.
“We are long-standing champions of the Scottish fishing industry and will continue to ensure the needs of industry, coastal communities and the marine environment are met, with sustainable and inclusive growth across all sectors.”
The fisheries affected by the suspension are DFPO Denmark North Sea and Skagerrak cod and saithe, Norway North Sea demersal and Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG) North Sea cod.
Cod caught after 24 October by these fisheries will not be eligible to be sold with the blue MSC label.