When little is known about the state of a given fish stock, the European Commission may adopt a precautionary approach that can result in annual quota reductions.
But the two-year project conducted by a team from the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway and local skippers has provided a wealth of information on ling, monkfish, lemon sole, plaice, hake and megrim in the northern North Sea.
The data will now be made available to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) for stock benchmarking exercises and stock assessments in coming years.
“This is a great example of scientists and fishermen working together for mutual benefit,” said Simon Collins, executive officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association.
“By making regular observer trips on board local boats and requesting that fishermen return tagged fish, scientists have gained valuable knowledge about the biological health and distribution of these stocks.
“Our fishermen should also gain when this information is fed through into the quota-setting process.”
He added: “That is particularly important for a species like hake, whose population has exploded in the North Sea in recent times but for which our quotas have been very low.
“When you have a mixed fishery as we do in the waters around Shetland it is plain to see that a low quota for an abundant species like hake is exhausted very quickly.
“When the discard ban kicks in that situation could cause real and totally unnecessary problems for the fishing industry. The sooner the science catches up with what our members see on the fishing grounds day after day, the better.”
Team leader Dr Paul Macdonald said he hoped that further funding would be forthcoming to continue the work he and his NAFC Marine Centre colleagues had done on the project, which was originally supported by the Scottish Government and then by the European Fisheries Fund.
He said: “An important consideration for any data collection is consistency. It is imperative to have an unbroken time series of data, collected in a consistent manner, in order evaluate trends in the fishery and biology of a given species.
“A significant break in the data series has the potential to undermine the efficacy of the data collected to date so it is important from a scientific and commercial point of view that this work continues.”
Dr Macdonald said the results of the study indicated that quota restrictions were resulting in significant discarding of species such as hake.
“This work has provided a valuable dataset for a number of commercially important species in the northern North Sea that can assist in their long term monitoring, assessment and, ultimately, management.”