Two-thirds of fish stocks are heading towards commercial extinction

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has released a damning report on the UK’s marine environment, stating that all the coastal habitats it studied have been ripped up and reclaimed for development, and two-thirds of the nation’s fish stocks are over-exploited and heading towards commercial extinction.

The Marine Health Check report released on 20 September examines 16 species and habitat indicators, chosen to represent different levels in the marine food chain, and a wide variety of habitats and says that the UK’s seas have been treated as a rubbish and chemical dump for decades.

The most significant findings of the report include:

  • a 75% decline in saltmarsh in recent years;
  • the loss of 25% of Britain’s mudflats, due to development – a trend which is still continuing. Many mudflats are so polluted by chemicals that male flounder in many estuaries are now displaying female sexual characteristics and even producing eggs;
  • the loss of up to 85% of the eelgrass meadows from UK estuaries, which is home to the seahorse;
  • an increase in the number and prevalence of invasive species, such as the Pacific seaweed, wire weed, which can grow twelve times bigger than normal in UK waters and can force out British species by smothering them;
  • a sharp decline in shallow water fish stocks, with two-thirds of north-east Atlantic stocks over-fished; Many UK cod stocks are heading towards commercial collapse and the common skate is now believed to be commercially extinct in the Irish Sea;
  • the recent over-exploitation of deep-water species, which breed far more slowly than shallow water fish. For example, stocks of the orange roughy have fallen by 75% in only ten years;
  • that marine mammals are at particular risk from pollution and nets. WWF fear that so many harbour porpoises are being entangled in fishing nets in the Celtic Sea that the population will not survive. The bottlenose dolphin may also be in decline and at least one resident population is under threat of extinction; one calf found off the coast of Wales was found to be one of the most polluted marine mammals ever found in the world.

The report’s author, Chris Berry, said, “As a marine scientist I am aware that the UK seas aren’t flourishing. However, having carried out this research, I was shocked to see what a sorry state the UK marine environment is in currently with no co-ordinated legislation to conserve and improve it in the future.”

Berry’s worries were echoed by WWF’s Oceans Campaign Director Matthew Davis, who described marine life as “the most neglected area of our natural heritage”. “Rapid action by the Government is needed now otherwise recovery for many of these species may not be possible,” he said.

The NGO has proposed some solutions to kick-start a recovery, such as a stronger network of Marine Protected Areas and pilot Fishing-Free Zones, which WWF believe would ensure that coastal communities have a sustainable fishing industry for the future.

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