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Thames Roker - A Time of Plenty?

Aug 01,2007 SACN

Early this year Thames estuary fishermen were bewildered and angry to find that the EU had imposed a limit on the number of roker (thornback rays) that could be landed amounting to just 25% of the weight of other species being landed.

Bewildered because both the commercial boats and angling boats (to which the catch limitations do not apply) were encountering more thornback than had been seen in the fishery for many years.

Angry because with all of the other existing restrictions, catches of thornback ray had become a lifeline whilst waiting for the restricted sole fishery to begin.

Local fishing organisations made strong representations through the local Sea Fisheries Committee and DEFRA to have the restriction lifted, particularly in view of the large numbers of fish they were finding on the grounds.

Because the authorities had failed to properly inform the local fishermen of the new restrictions without any prior warning or consultation, the Marine Fisheries Agency, responsible for enforcement, let it be know that enforcement action would initially be limited to advising fishermen of the new bycatch limit during a ‘period of education’ until the end of March (when the sole fishery began).

Meanwhile DEFRA arranged a swap of quota for Scottish prawns for sole to be given to the Southern North Sea inshore boats, to help them financially (much to the great annoyance of the Scottish fleet).

Alarmingly it became apparent that Thames fishermen felt that they now had no choice other than to land low-value species, such as tope, that they would previously had released alive, to justify their bycatch landings of roker, even though the ‘justification catch’ would probably be simply dumped the following day.

Negotiations by DEFRA, following pressure from the fishermen’s organisations and local Sea Fisheries Committee, finally amended the regulation so that under 10 metre vessels could now legally land up to 250kg of roker per day, before the bycatch rule applied.

So, everything fine.

Plenty of roker, reasonable landings could still be made, and the threat was removed from the unnecessary slaughter of ‘justification species’.

But is the picture that rosy?

Certainly there is currently a lot of roker to be found in the Thames estuary, but CEFAS scientists have confirmed that this MIGHT simply be because of a phenomenon known as hyper-aggregation.

This occurs when a species is so depleted over its normally wide range that successful spawning densities etc are difficult to achieve, and so the fish gather together from a wide area in a much smaller area.

Fishermen experiencing this will be lead to believe that though there may be problems elsewhere, stocks in this area at least are healthy and growing, and that continuing exploitation at a fairly high level is proving sustainable, as fish removed are replaced by individuals from increasingly stressed areas seeking the higher population density that they need.

Dramatically, this is sometimes referred to as ‘The End Game’.

It is hoped that this is NOT what is occurring with Thames Estuary stocks, but does point to the need for more research to find out exactly what is happening to both the roker population of the Southern North Sea generally, and in particular how this relates to the population in the Thames Estuary when fish gather to breed.

In the meantime, as one commentator has put it, ‘until we know perhaps now is the time for the precautionary approach to be applied, rather than the Gung-Ho’.

Hopefully the current abundance will be remembered as the start of when good roker fishing became a feature of the Thames fishery, both commercially and recreationally, rather than the brief time of plenty before the fisheries were trashed.  

(note: It is expected that CEFAS officials will be making a presentation at the September meeting of the Kent & Essex Sea Fisheries Committee, regarding their research into roker in the area, and some of their findings, presenting an opportunity for both commercial fishermen and anglers interested in the species to learn more, and to ask questions)   


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