Bass, seabass (Caught at sea)

Dicentrarchus labrax

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Demersal seine net
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — North Sea (Central and South), Irish Sea, English Channel, Bristol Channel, Celtic Sea
Stock detail — 4b, 4c, 7a, 7d-h
Picture of Bass, seabass (Caught at sea)

Sustainability rating four info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2020

Bass is important to inshore artisanal fishers, offshore fisheries, and recreational anglers, and has high socio-economic value. Historically, commercial seabass landings were minimal and the species was mainly the quarry or recreational anglers, but since the 1970s the commercial catch has escalated and by mid-1990s was believed to equal the recreational take. The combination of slow growth, late maturity, spawning aggregation, and strong summer site fidelity increase the vulnerability of seabass to overexploitation and localised depletion.

Spawning stock biomass (SSB) for this stock has been declining since 2005 and is now only slightly above Blim (if the stock falls below Blim, its ability to reproduce may be impaired). The stock is not, however, being subject to overfishing, as fishing pressure has been reduced by a series of management measures. The EU multiannual plan for stocks in the Western Waters and adjacent waters applies to this stock. ICES considers the plan to be precautionary. Seabass are not subject to EU TACs (Total Allowable Catch) or quotas. Total removal by commercial and recreational fisheries are not well documented, which are consistently and significantly higher than is advised. Discards are poorly understood, but are known to consist of young fish. Better selectivity and spatial management measures are required to address this. Seabass are caught using a variety of fishing gears (fixed gillnet, hook and line, demersal trawl and seine), some of which, can have high levels of bycatch of non-target species, and habitat impacts upon the seabed, by abrasion and smothering in this ecoregion. Danish (or demersal) seine netting takes about 3% of catch here. Danish seines have a smaller footprint than otter trawls and therefore have less impact on the seafloor. Most seabass catch in trawl fisheries is bycatch.


Bass or seabass belongs to a family of spiny-finned fish called Moronidae, which are closely related to groupers. Bass breed from March to mid-June, mostly in April, in British coastal and offshore waters, from January to March in the Bay of Biscay and from February to May in the English Channel and eastern Celtic Sea. It is a long-lived and slow growing species - up to 30 years of age - and can achieve a length of up to 1m with a weight of 12kg. Male bass mature at 31-35cm (aged 3-6 years) and females mature at 40-45cm (aged 5-8 years). Once mature, bass may migrate within UK coastal waters and occasionally further offshore. Increases in sea water temperature in recent decades has likely led to a more northerly distribution of seabass, as it is now found further north into the North Sea. Climate warming may also have lengthened the time adult seabass spend in the summer feeding areas. After spawning, seabass tend to return to the same coastal sites each year.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0.5 info

Stock Area

North Sea (Central and South), Irish Sea, English Channel, Bristol Channel, Celtic Sea

Stock information

The stock is at a very low size but fishing pressure is within sustainable limits.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has been declining since 2009, in 2019 it was 10,884 tonnes. In 2020, SSB increased to 11,007 tonnes, which is below MSY Btrigger (14,439 tonnes) and just above Blim (10,313 tonnes). If SSB falls below Blim, the stock is at greater risk of suffering impaired recruitment. In 2020, the ratio of B:BMSY was 0.76. Fishing mortality (F) has increased over the time-series, peaking in 2013 at 0.29 before a rapid decline, which has been below the Maximum Sustainable Yield (FMSY) (0.17) since 2016. In 2019, F was 0.097, which included commercial (0.077) and recreational (0.0198) catches; the ratio of F:FMSY was 0.57. After a period of above average recruitment, recruitment is low, fluctuating without trend since 2008. The combination of increasing fishing mortality, and environmental conditions causing poor recruitment since 2008, appears to be responsible for the continuous decline in biomass.

ICES advises that when the EU multiannual plan (MAP) for Western Waters and adjacent waters is applied, total removals (commercial and recreational) in 2021 that correspond to the F ranges in the plan are between 1,680 tonnes and 2,000 tonnes. According to the MAP, catches higher than those corresponding to FMSY can only be taken under conditions specified in the MAP. ICES considers the FMSY range used in the MAP to be precautionary. This is a <3% increase on 2020 catch advice.

Stock identity remains poorly understood, and tagging and genetics studies are ongoing. There are four assumed sea bass stocks: Northern (Divisions 4b-c, 7a, 7d-h); Southern Ireland and Western Scotland (Divisions 6a, 7b and 7j); Biscay (Divisions 8a-b); Portugal & Northern Spain (Divisions 8c, 9a). Stock identity has not been changed, but research on population structure are under progress.


Criterion score: 0.75 info

There are management measures in place, but the fishery is poorly managed and requires significant improvement, or specific management measures implemented.

A series of emergency management measures were brought into force in 2015, and have been developed and added to since. These seem to have effectively reduced overall fishing mortality so that the stock is no longer subject to overfishing. However, recreational catches are not properly understood, or accounted for, and discarding is significantly underestimated. More needs to be done, to reduce catches of undersized fish through better selectivity and spatial management measures. There is evidence that illegal targeting of seabass is taking place: if this continues, it could jeopardise the status of the fishery. Seabass recruitment is sensitive to environmental pressures, and because of the low stock size there is a risk that recruitment would be impaired even under beneficial environmental conditions.

The EU multiannual plan (MAP) for stocks in the Western Waters and adjacent waters applies to this stock. The plan specifies conditions for setting fishing opportunities depending on stock status and making use of the FMSY range for the stock. It aims to ensure that stocks, in particular seabass stocks, are exploited sustainably and that the decisions on fishing opportunities are based on the most up-to-date scientific information. ICES considers that the FMSY range for this stock used in the MAP to be precautionary.

Seabass are not subject to EU TACs (Total Allowable Catch) and quotas. Taking only commercial landings and discards into account, catches in 2015, 2016 and 2018 were 82%, 176% and 63% above advice, respectively. In 2017, catch advice was for 0 catch, but this was ignored and the industry caught a total 1,255 tonnes. For the first time since 2014, catches were in line with advice in 2019; 20% under the catch advice. Because seabass can be caught in many fisheries, it could become a ‘choke species’ if vessel catch limits were introduced and seabass fell under the landings obligation. Instead, monthly catch limits are in place for different gear types, but there is concern that the recent measures are not being universally adhered to.

Under EU regulation (EU Regulation 2015/523), the Minimum Landings Size (MLS) for seabass caught within the Celtic Sea, Channel, Irish Sea and southern North Sea (Divisions 4b-c, 7a, 7d-h) increased to 42cm in 2015, from the standard 36 cm MLS in the Northeast Atlantic (EC regulation 850/98). This commercial MLS is now reflective of the 42cm MLS set for recreational fishing. The increase was in response to information that indicates that female seabass reach first sexual maturity at a size of 42cm within this region.

Discards are high within this fishery, in 2018 and 2019 discards have accounted for 34% and 32% of the total catch, respectively.

Emergency measures in 2015 included stopping the offshore pelagic trawl fishery on spawning aggregations between January and April 2015, bag limits for recreational fishing, and increasing the Minimum Conservation Reference Size from 36 cm to 42 cm. This reduced not only pelagic trawl catches of seabass, but also bycatch of seabass in other fisheries. However, it also increased discards of fish below MCRS. Further measures have been introduced or developed since. In 2020, the following measures were in place:
For recreational fishing, 2 fish per fisherman per day / 9 months (March-November) can be retained in the North Sea (Divisions 4b-c), West of Scotland (Division 6a), and Celtic Seas (7a-k). This limit is up from the 2019, bag limit of 1 bass per fisherman per day / 7 months. The fishing period was also extended in 2018. For the rest of the year recreational fishers are limited to catch and release only (January-February, and the month of December). These rules apply to fishermen fishing from a boat or from the shore and no seabass can be taken by fixed nets.
Commercial fishermen are prohibited from catching, retaining, transhipping or landing bass caught in South West Approaches (Divisions 7b-c, 7J-k) or the Irish or Celtic Seas outside of the 12 nautical mile limit of UK waters (in Divisions 7g and 7a). In the North Sea (Divisions 4b-c), English Channel (Divisions 7d-e), Celtic and Irish Sea (Divisions 7g and 7a inside the 12nm limit of the UK; 7f), and South West Approaches (Division 7h), commercial fishing can take place at certain times of the year (January; April-December) with authorisation from the Marine Management Organisation. Fishing for bass in any of these areas is prohibited during February and March (spawning season).
Commercial shore fisheries, driftnets and pelagic trawling are prohibited. For other gears the following limits apply: for demersal trawl and demersal seine, up to 520kg of unavoidable bycatch may be retained per two consecutive calendar months and a maximum of 5% (by weight) of total daily catch; hooks and lines: up to 5.7 tonnes per year; fixed gillnets: 1.4 tonnes of unavoidable bycatch may be retained per year. These weight limits are an increase on the previous years of 2018 and 2019. For 2019 catches, it was estimated that the recreational sector’s share of catches would be ~17%, while the commercial sector would catch ~83% of the total. Bass that have been caught in contravention to these regulation (no authorisation, wrong gear, below minimum size etc.) must be discarded.
In Ireland, a moratorium on commercial fishing for bass has been in effect since 1990 and the species is restrictively managed for its valuable recreational sector and angling tourism industry. Recreational fisheries in Ireland are subject to bag limits of 2 fish per 24 hours; a 40 cm minimum size limit; and a closed season from 15 May-15 June each year.

The UK has 37 seabass nursery areas where certain types of fishing on seabass are prevented annually or seasonally. However, catching and discarding of seabass by trawlers fishing close to nursery areas means that juveniles are still being caught

Discarding is estimated from a mix of sampling programmes and logbooks, and sampling is variable across fleets and years. Despite the increase in reported discards since 2016, for some countries, total discards are still considerably underestimated. Most discards are fish below MCRS, and mostly from otter trawlers using 80-99 mm mesh in areas such as the inshore English Channel, where juvenile bass are most common.

Monitoring and enforcement includes the use of vessel monitoring system (VMS) on board vessels >12m overall length; direct observations by patrol vessels and aerial patrols; inspections of vessels, gear and catches at sea and on shore, and verification of EU logbook data (for vessels >10m) against sales documentation. Given the large number of small vessels landing small quantities of bass this is considered to add to the uncertainty in quantifying overall catches, although sampling by member states is required. Considerable uncertainties remain in the historical landings of seabass by the under-10m fleets.

The importance of seabass to recreational fisheries, artisanal and other inshore commercial fisheries and large-scale offshore fisheries in different regions indicates that resource sharing is an important issue for management consideration.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 31st December 2020, and new UK Fisheries legislation is being developed during 2020. MCS will update ratings with new management information when new legislation comes into force.

In the European Union (EU), EU fishing vessels can fish up to 12 nautical miles of any Member State coast, and closer by agreement. There is overarching fisheries legislation for all Member States, but implementation varies between fisheries, Member States and sea basins.
The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the primary overarching policy. Its key environmental objectives are to restore and maintain harvested species at healthy levels (above BMSY), and apply the precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. To achieve the MSY objective, the MSY exploitation rate is supposed to be achieved by 2020, but this seems unlikely to happen.
The CFP also introduced a Landing Obligation (LO) which bans the discarding at sea of species which are subject to catch limits. Some exemptions apply to species with high post-capture survival, and where avoiding unwanted catches is very difficult. These exemptions are outlined in regional discard plans. Despite quota ‘uplift’ being granted to fleets under the LO, available evidence suggests there has been widespread non-compliance with the policy, and illegal and unreported discarding is likely occurring.
Multi-Annual Plans (MAPs) are a tool for implementing the CFP regionally, with one in place or being developed for each sea basin. They specify fishing mortality targets and ranges for the main targeted species, as well as lower biomass reference points. If populations drop below these points it should trigger a management response. The MAPs also empower Member States to jointly apply measures such as closures, gear or capacity limits, and bycatch limits. There is concern however that the MAPs do not provide adequate safeguards to maintain all stocks at healthy levels.
The EU Technical Measures regulation addresses how, where and when fishing can take place in order to limit unwanted catches and ecosystem impacts. There are common measures that apply to all EU sea basins, and regional measures that vary between sea basins. Measures include Minimum Conservation Reference Sizes (MCRS, previously Minimum Landing Sizes, MLS), gear specifications, mesh sizes, closed areas, and bycatch limits.
The Control Regulation, which is being revised in 2019, addresses application of and compliance with the above, e.g. keeping catches within limits, recording and sharing data, and satellite tracking of vessels over 12 metres (VMS).

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.25 info

Seabass are caught by a variety of methods (i.e. fixed gillnets, hook and line, demersal trawl, demersal ‘Danish’ seine) in the central and southern North Sea, Irish Sea, English Channel, Bristol Channel, and the Celtic Sea.

Seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax), are caught by commercial and recreational fishers. There is significant recreational fishing for seabass in inshore waters, and many small-scale artisanal fisheries, especially line fishing. These fisheries have developed a high seasonal dependency on seabass. Approximately 21% of the total estimated catch in this fishery is from recreational fishing and 79% from commercial fishing, based on 2019 catch forecasting. In 2018, commercial catch was split between the following capture methods as follows: lines 52%; fixed or drift nets 26%; bottom trawl 14%; Danish seine 3%; pelagic trawls 1%; and others gears 4%. Most commercial seabass catches are taken in targeted fisheries, although some are caught as bycatch in other fisheries. Historically the bulk of the landings were made by the French fishery, but since implementation of management measures (2015 onwards), landings have been shared between the UK, France and Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Belgium.

The commercial seabass fisheries in Subareas 4 and 7 have two distinct components: an offshore fishery on pre-spawning and spawning seabass during winter months, and small-scale inshore fisheries catching mature fish returning to coastal areas following spawning and in some cases immature seabass. The inshore fisheries include many small (10 m and under) vessels using a variety of fishing methods (e.g. trawl, handline, nets, rod and line). The fishery may either target seabass or take them as a bycatch with other species. Targeted netting for seabass and bycatch takes place all around the coast of England and Wales. This occurs both in inshore waters and in some areas such as the Eastern Channel where netting extends into deeper water to intercept migrating adult seabass in autumn and early winter.

Danish seines are similar to a small trawl net, but the wire warps are much longer and there are no otter boards. Although there is contact with the seabed, gears are light and only have light contact with the sea floor, thus benthic impacts are minor. They operate two long seine ropes to herd fish together in the fishing area, nets are laid out on muddy or sandy seabed, which is anchored at one end, and hauled in once the fish have been encircled. Seine sets can easily encircle marine mammals such as dolphins, sea turtles, whales and sharks, along with the target species as the net is set. However, generally seine netters have a very low bycatch rates, and there have been no reports of bycatch of protected, endangered or threatened species within this ecoregion by seine nets.

The behaviour of seabass, forming predictable aggregations for spawning in winter and moving inshore to feed at other times of the year increase the stock vulnerability to exploitation by offshore and inshore fisheries. The effects of targeting of offshore spawning aggregations of seabass in the English Channel and Celtic Sea are poorly understood, particularly how the fishing effort is distributed in relation to mixing of fish from different nursery grounds or summer feeding grounds in the UK, France and other countries, given the strong site fidelity of seabass.

Seabass is a widely distributed species in northeast Atlantic shelf waters with a range from southern Norway, through the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Bay of Biscay, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to North-west Africa. The species is at the northern limits of its range around the British Isles and southern Scandinavia. Warm conditions facilitate northward migration of seabass in the Northeast Atlantic. Seabass recruitment has been shown to be correlated with UK inshore coastal temperatures from January to March.


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