Tackle and Tactics
Mike Ladle

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Overfishing effects.

Gliding through the waving fronds of a kelp forest the cod stopped at intervals to investigate a brittle star and crab scuttling for cover. Along with itís shoalmates it had been having a thin time, food was scarce in the cold northern waters but spring, and a time of plenty, was on the way. As the big red- brown fish emerged from the cover of the weed onto the sandy sea bed plain, a glint of silver caught itís eye - whiting! Twisting and turning the cod shoal ripped, again and again, into the massed ranks of their smaller cousins.

Our cod saw a flash slightly brighter than the rest and turned towards it. FLASH, FLASH, FLASH! It looked like an easy meal and the great fish lunged with pinpoint precision, mouth agape. Into itís jaws, with a rush of water, was drawn the twisting, darting prey. Soon, with bulging stomachs, the remaining members of the cod shoal returned to the shelter of the waving kelp leaving the whiting school decimated and panic stricken.

Cod and whiting, like most fish, are only too keen to feed on their smaller relatives and many species of the cod family - known as gadoids, are predatory, even to the extent of cannibalism. As they grow all baby gadoids suffer from the successive attacks of arrow worms, sea gooseberries, jellyfish and eventually bigger species of fish such as cod, haddock, whiting and coalfish. Fishermen also hunt the seas for fish and for many years scientists have realised that trawlermen and longliners compete with the fish themselves to see who can catch the most. In the past the traditional approach to managing depleted stocks of food fish, such as whiting or cod, was to reduce commercial fishing pressures. Increased mesh sizes in nets, the introduction of catch quotas, less hours spent at sea, even complete bans on the landing of particular species have all been tried in vain attempts to halt over fishing.

Years of painstaking research by goevrnment boffins have shown that the amount of fish consumed by other fish is indeed very large. In fact it is believed that the weight of fish eaten in the North Sea is on a par with that caught by all the fishing nations put together.

So big fish eat little fish - but of course its much more complicated than that. Take just one example. Using bigger mesh nets to conserve young cod also automatically reduces fishing pressure on smaller species such as whiting. Thus protected, the numbers of whiting may then increase more quickly than those of cod, and whiting eat A LOT of baby cod, so fewer cod might make it to a size big enough to be trawled and turned into food. In this way the protection measures could backfire and deplete the stocks still further.

In 1991, to confirm their suspicions, ministry scientists examined the stomachs of almost 35,000 fish taken from the North Sea. The prey of every single specimen of every species were identified, counted and weighed. Extra information on how quickly food passes through the fish was also obtained.For example, it was found that shelly foods such as shrimp take about five times as long to digest as fish or lugworm. Using this data the numbers of fish eaten each year are to be calculated. From this we now know that the massive crash in numbers of cod and their relatives has been accompanied by an increase in populations of mid-water fish such as herring and sprat. Coincidence? - I think not!

In addition to mere statistics we, as anglers, can learn something from these studies about how to catch fish. For example what are the main foods of the big cod that we seek? The stomachs may be half full-of crab but if these tough customers stay undigested for, say, ten times as long as the fish which are eaten, it suggests that crab are perhaps less attractive to the cod than it might appear. Similarly, bass stomachs, for example, often contain the remains of both crabs and fish but the latter are almost certainly the more important food.

If we want to catch bigger fish than average we might have to reconsider which baits to use in particular circumstances. ďSo what!Ē you might say, ďI only use lug, crab, mussel, ragworm and so on. I couldnít care less whether whiting eat cod or vice versa?Ē Well, of course, you should care. For a start, whether we like it or not, the quality of our fishing is greatly influenced by commercial pressures. If, perish the thought, the men from the ministry get it wrong (or if politicians fail to implement their advice) their may be no cod, whiting or haddock for us to catch in future years. Our children and grandchildren may never see a codling bigger than fifteen-inches in length and the long, cold waits between bites could be a lot longer than they are at present.

FLASH! FLASH! FLASH! The big red cod glimpses another easy meal and turns back from the haven of the kelp for a final snack. One sweep of itís great tail takes it within reach of the little darting fish and the great coal scuttle of a mouth opens to engulf itís victim.Carried by the inrush of water the silver-plated pirk jerks upwards and itís razor sharp hook sinks home into the bony jaw of the fish. Far above on the heaving deck of a small boat, a young angler feels the surging resistance on his line, the carbon rod curves in response and the long, hard haul begins.

It is five minutes or more before the thirty pounder is netted and heaved aboard to a chorus of oohs! and aahs! from the excited charter partyÖ. Just the stuff real angling memories are made of.

Just to prove that overfishing is REAL I've included a couple of graphs derived from that great "fisheries experiment" the First World War. Commercial fishing has increased a great deal since the 1920's and the techniques (super sonar, GPS, faster ships, better synthetic nets and lines, etc. etc.) are in a different ball park. NOW do you believe that we could be faced with a serious problem???

If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - docladle@hotmail.com

INFORMATION SPOT

Overfishing effects.

Overfishing effect.

When North Sea fishing effort reduced, during the Great War, fish stocks increased enormously.

Another....

Not only were there more cod after the war but many of them were MUCH bigger.

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