CONCERN is increasing about the highly lucrative trade in catching and transporting live wrasse from England to be used as fish cleaners in Scottish salmon farms.

And at up to £17.50 per live wrasse, mostly from the south coast, there is big money to be made from the business.

The wrasse that are relocated are used to control the number of sea lice that infest and adversely affect the salmon stocks.

During 2018, live wrasse removals from the Southern IFCA district are expected to total in the region of 20,000 ballan wrasse and 15,000 other wrasse species, which equates to an estimated 11.6 tonnes.

And at £50,000 a tonne they are now the most expensive fish in Europe.

The trade in the Portland area of Dorset was recently highlighted by the BBC programme Inside Out South. Presenters found evidence that the voluntary regulations which control the trade are not always followed. One boat owner was even caught rod and line fishing in a no fishing zone.

The Angling Trust and Fish Legal launched a campaign in 2017 to restrict the catch and their head of marine David Mitchell spoke on the programme.

David commented: “It was a very positive story to be involved in and I think the BBC, and Joe Crowley in particular, did a good job at getting the balance right – not something we can always say.

“I was very pleased that this story was given the opportunity to be told like this.

“The use of wrasse as cleaner fish is something we have been campaigning about for a couple of years now but it’s been difficult to raise the profile of this little known fish outside of the world of sea angling.

“I hope the programme helped to raise the profile of the issue to a much wider audience who would have continued to be unaware of it otherwise.

“Once this happens policy makers start to take notice so I hope the programme will also lead to further questions being asked and public pressure to consider whether using wild wrasse as cleaner fish is sustainable or the best use of a publicly-owned resource.

“The individual fishing in the protected area was a commercial fisherman who was fishing with rod and line. He normally uses pots to catch wrasse (which are banned in the No Take Zone) but claimed he didn’t realise commercial rod and line wrasse fishing was too,” David concluded.

Fish Legal is on the wrasse case

A spokesman for Fish Legal added: “Fish Legal is engaged in pre-litigation correspondence with Defra as it oversees the work of the non-executive agencies such as Natural England, MMO and the IFCAs.

“At present, wrasse fishing is only restricted on a voluntary basis. We told Defra that if there is any risk of impact to the protected reefs on the south coast due to the exploitation of wrasse then the responsible bodies should halt all fishing for them until proper assessment is made and byelaws introduced.

“Natural England say they now believe ‘beyond all reasonable scientific doubt’ that there will be no adverse impact on the reefs – yet at the same time recognise gaps in information about wrasse and the role they play in the reef system.

“NE are therefore funding a PhD studentship to do the research. Meanwhile, the exploitation continues!

“We have now written to NE to ask why their assessment of impact – which is primarily ‘desktop’ and without proper evidence, has risen from ‘unlikely’ to ‘beyond all reasonable scientific doubt’,” he concluded.

Where and how wrasse are taken

Data from iFISH (2000 to November 2016) indicates that the main areas where wrasse were taken from are the west coast of Scotland (33% of landings, but likely underestimated), western English Channel (42%) and eastern English Channel (18%).

On the south coast of England, wrasse caught were landed into some 70 ports, with the main landing ports being Brixham (16% of Channel landings), followed by Lyme Regis (12%) and Eastbourne (12%).

The main gear for these landings were gill nets (40%) and otter trawl (30%), whilst potting only accounted for 4% of recorded landings.

The BBC programme is available to watch for a limited period HERE.

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