A NATIONAL conference was held in Weymouth to tackle a crash in sea bass numbers.

Stocks of sea bass are at their lowest in two decades, according to figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

A conservation conference was held in Weymouth today calling for catches of wild sea bass in European waters to be cut by more than a third next year.

Lisa Readdy, from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Science (Cefas), spoke at the conference.

She said: “This year's assessment of the bass stocks shows a declining population, with a drop of more than 20 per cent when compared with previous years.”

Scientists are recommending a 36 per cent cut in catches in the English Channel, Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and southern North Sea.

This would mean that bass landings next year in the UK, Channel Islands, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and France could be no more than 2,707 tonnes compared with 4,060 tonnes landed last year.

Charles Clover, chairman of ocean conservation charity the Blue Marine Foundation which organised the event, said: “The apparent crash in the sea bass population highlighted by the latest ICES assessment should be of significant concern to both commercial and recreational fishermen, especially as nothing very much appears to be being done about it yet at a government level.

“We believe that the need to protect older fish until they can spawn reopens the debate about minimum landing sizes that took place in the last decade.

“This time, both commercial and recreational fishermen need to combine their significant lobbying power to ensure we protect this living resource effectively.

“We also hope that the kind of scientific research currently being carried out alongside academic and commercial partners in Lyme Bay, as part of Blue's project to establish a marine protected area there with the active participation of local fishermen, can play a part in explaining what is currently happening to sea bass stocks.”

Potential measures could include the imposition of larger net mesh sizes, an increase in minimum landing sizes, the closure of certain areas during the spring months to protect spawning potential, with caps on allowable monthly catch per vessel for the rest of the year as an EU standard, or the imposition of international quotas on bass.

PANEL ANDY Alcock, secretary of the Weymouth and Portland Licensed Fishermen's and Boatmen's Association, said: “We were not aware of this meeting and we were not invited - how can you have a meeting about fishing with no fishermen there?

“These decisions are made behind closed doors without the people who will be affected.

“A cut of 36 per cent would decimate us, I'm only catching around five fish a day and going down to two or three would put me out of business.

“It would destroy the fishing in this area and a lot of people would be out of work.“There needs to be a balance.

“We fish for bass and there's quite a big fleet in Weymouth but it's all by line.

“Very little netting is done so mesh size wouldn't affect us.

“Banning bass fishing during the spawning period would be no problem because we only catch them from May to October or November anyway.

“There's also a massive problem with unlicensed fishing and instead of chasing the legal people the government should do more about that.”