Ken Kawahara, Secretary of the Brittany Handliners Association recently interviewed Gwenn Pennarun, President of the same association to reflect on the tough fishing season so far.
What is your assessment of the 2023 fishing season?
2023 has been a particularly difficult year. The fishermen in our association depend mainly on sea bass, which we start to hunt from mid-March onwards. This is the end of the biological rest period for sea bass in the Bay of Biscay, a measure adopted voluntarily by our fishermen.
The beginning of the season is always quiet, you have to wait for the fish to come back to the coast and fishing starts again in April or May. Spring is the most important time for us, but this year the catches have been very poor, much worse than in previous years.
Our fishermen, whether in the south of Brittany or further north, in the Channel, have made the same observation. This is astonishing, given that scientific advice has never been so positive and catch recommendations so high.
To compensate for this lack of sea bass, some have tried to turn to octopus or pollack, but there is much less octopus than in 2021, and pollack is also in decline.
Sea bass have been under management measures since 2016 in the Channel and 2017 in the Bay of Biscay. Limiting recreational boating to 2 sea bass per day has made it possible to curb the abusive practices of some operators. Logically, there should be an improvement in the situation on both sides, but this is not at all what we are seeing in reality. In 2022, the entire French fishing fleet in the Bay of Biscay did not even manage to catch the entire authorised ceiling (2446 tonnes). They caught only 76% of the authorised catch ceiling, 1851 tonnes. And yet, the legal restrictions that were imposed were relaxed precisely to allow trawlers and gillnetters to catch more sea bass, especially during the winter period, when sea bass reproduce…
This situation is of great concern to us, because we don’t know whether it’s the scientists who have made a mistake in their calculations, or whether the sea bass are changing their behaviour and biotopes, perhaps because of climate change, or because of other factors that unfortunately nobody understands at the moment.
And what about the other species sought by hand-liners?
Some hand-liners have a different strategy and look for other species, such as pollack, gilthead bream or bluefin tuna, but none of these offer the same economic potential as sea bass. The fishing season for these species is often shorter and prices are more uncertain than for sea bass. As for bluefin tuna, only a handful of hand-liners have the European Fishing Authorisation and a sufficient fishing quota to target it, but only for a few months of the year.
Hand-liners regularly catch pollack because it is found in more or less the same areas as sea bass. In the Bay of Biscay, it is essentially a by-catch, accounting for a small proportion of their turnover.
On the other hand, in the Manche (Channel) department, starting from Audierne, many hand-liners are heavily dependent on sea bass, sometimes accounting for more than 90% of their turnover. This dependence was less pronounced before sea bass stocks collapsed in the 2010s. The pollack then became a substitute species for these fishers.
Unfortunately, our fishermen have also been observing a decline in the pollack stock for several years, particularly a scarcity of large individuals, a sign of a healthy stock when present. This observed decline has been ignored by scientists and politicians for many years. However, this year the ICES Advice recommended a complete moratorium on pollack fishing in the Channel. If this moratorium were to be imposed, it would be a real disaster for dozens of hand-liners, who unfortunately have no alternative.
We really want all measures to be applied to restoring the pollack stock, but it is vital to preserve the hand-liners who are threatened by this ban, and who nevertheless only catch a small proportion of pollack landings.
We are therefore calling for a restoration plan for pollack, which must include the following measures:
- Introduction of an individual annual ceiling granted as a priority to those fishers most dependent on the pollack AND practising line fishing.
- Introduction of a 0 quota for pleasure craft
- Minimum length increased to 40 cm
- Introduction of a biological rest period between January and March
What are your hopes for the future?
With all the crises we’ve been experiencing over the last few years, our entire sector is under serious threat. Whether it’s the fuel crisis, the accidental capture of cetaceans, global warming, etc., all the warning signs are flashing red.
You might think that small-scale fishermen like us are better protected than trawlers because we are less dependent on fuel, our fishing practices respect the marine environment and we have virtually no waste. But the fishing industry is an ecosystem in its own right, and if trawlers and other types of vessel disappear in the short term, there’s nothing to ensure the continued existence of the auctions that enable us to sell our fish easily, the wholesalers who buy it or the transporters who take it to our end customers. Even if we have come into conflict with certain types of intensive fishing such as pelagic trawlers or purse seiners, we don’t want them to disappear, just for them to modify their practices, and not to target demersal species such as sea bass or sea bream for example.
What is lacking in our sector is a vision for the future, which must, of course, include the technical challenges of decarbonisation, but which must also take account of environmental issues: the state of our resources is not good overall, much less good than when I started in this business. We need to restore fishery resources and marine biodiversity as a whole if we want our children to be able to pick up the baton.
However, there are many young fishermen who are motivated and ready to take over from us, especially in our small-scale fishing segment. But these young people are very often faced with numerous problems, such as the price of vessels, the availability of fishing rights and quotas, which are often in the hands of the biggest vessels.
My hope for the future is that we will be able to support these youngsters to start up under good conditions, both in terms of fishing rights and healthy resources that we will have helped to restore.