Fishing – Catching a Sea Bass

This is a post about fishing – catching, killing, preparing and eating a beautiful sea bass from a seaside pier close to home in the East of England. Not my usual legal practice area, but as a lawyer writing on his legal blog it would be remiss of me not to add a squeeze of legal juice to the mix, much like a squeeze of lemon on a nice fillet of fish.

I caught this fish while night fishing with my good friend Carl. He caught a dab, a bottom feeding flatfish, and I caught the bass. On a previous occasion we had only caught a sea gooseberry (see photograph) and a tenacious crab, both of which we released. This time we went with better bait – live ragworm and lugworm, and we really started getting bites around the midnight hour, between 12 and 1. The bass put up a fight – which they are well known for – but I reeled him in. It was the ragworm that caught him. As a brief aside, ragworm are quite viscous little creatures and have pincers in their mouths that can bite quite hard, and I was indeed bitten by one of them that evening. I suppose I shouldn’t complain as I was impaling him on a fishhook at the time. And all credit to him: he caught me my bass.

(A sea gooseberry – it is a real thing!)

Unlike most other sporting and hunting activities, there are no night-time restrictions on recreational sea fishing with a rod and line in England, and there are also no licensing requirements. There may be local restrictions, including the exercise of property rights where the land or pier is privately owned, or by-laws from the local council. But generally, sea fishing with a rod and line is permitted – the only regulations being in relation to catch limits (number of fish), size limits (size of fish), and species limits (type of fish).

It is to retained European Union legislation and subsequent national amendments that we must turn when considering the relevant restrictions for recreational sea bass fishing. Council Regulation 2020/123 of 27 January 2020 was made pursuant to Article 43(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and it was retained in UK law pursuant to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. “Exit Day” is defined in that Act as 11pm on 31 January 2020 (see Section 20(1)), so this 2020 EU regulation is caught by the 2018 Act. Article 10 of the EU regulation sets out all the appropriate limits – catch limits, size limits, and limits on when and where you can catch and keep. It has since been updated by national amendments, and the current position is set out below.

To understand the issue of “when and where”, I need to explain to you a little bit about the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). The ICES is “an intergovernmental marine science organization” which aims to provide “impartial evidence on the state and sustainable use of our seas and oceans”. It consists of a membership of 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, much of the European Union, America, Canada, and the Russian Federation. Take a look at their website – it gives really valuable insight into our impact on the oceans and how we manage them (https://www.ices.dk/about-ICES/Pages/default.aspx). And in a context of overfishing and pollution, it is an issue that we all need to be aware of – lawyers, anglers, eaters-of-fish, and our society in general. The ICES has compartmentalised the sea into divisions and these divisions are used in legislation to assist with the sustainable management of our oceans and territorial waters. Around the United Kingdom, our coastal waters are designated as the following divisions: 4a – 4c, 6a, 7a, 7d – 7g. Coastal waters around England and Wales only are: 4b, 4c, 7a, 7d, 7e, 7f, 7g. And of these, my own part of the coast is 4c. My bass was a 4c sea bass.

I include a map from the ICES which I have overlaid with red text showing the relevant divisions, again using data from the ICES:

(https://gis.ices.dk/sf/)

Article 10 of the EU regulation has been amended most recently by the Sea Fisheries (Amendment etc.) (No. 2) Regulations 2021, in particular Regulation 10, made in exercise of the powers conferred by section 36(1)(b) and (c) of the Fisheries Act 2020. Pursuant to paragraph 5(a) of Article 10 of the EU regulation and Regulation 10(2)(d)(i) of the UK 2021 regulations, for the whole months of January, February and December, in ICES divisions 4b, 4c, 6a, 7a and 7d – 7g (I only address UK coastal waters – refer to the regulations for further affected areas), recreational anglers are strictly limited to catch and release only.  You’ll see that it’s only the North-East tip of Scotland that is not affected by this restriction. And pursuant to paragraph 5(b) of Article 10 of the EU regulation and Regulation 10(2)(d)(ii) of the UK 2021 regulations, from the beginning of March to the end of November (i.e. for the rest of the year) recreational anglers are strictly limited to a haul of 2 sea bass per fisherman per day, and the minimum size of the fish retained must be 42cm (16 ½ inches).

MonthCatch limitsSize limits
January, February, DecemberCatch and release ONLYN/A
March – NovemberRetain 2 per fisherman per day42cm (16 ½ inches)

The above provisions are among the fisheries conservation measures referred to in the Sea Fishing (Enforcement) Regulations 2018, for the purposes of enforcement against breaches. These regulations give inshore fisheries and conservation officers (IFC officers), appropriately appointed, several powers to investigate and enforce penalties for breaching the regulations. Specifically, the enforcement regulations give IFC officers all the powers listed in Section 166(3) of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This really is not as straight forward as it sounds, and for some odd reason (!) I have been unable to find case law from the senior courts in respect of these matters… However, I cannot see that breach of any of the above regulations would amount to the commission of an offence in itself. If the above regulations had been made pursuant to Section 1(1) of the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967 (which they could have been, at least in relation to the size limit), then a relevant offence would certainly have been created by Section 1(7) of that 1967 Act. But they were not made pursuant to that Act at all – as we have seen, they were made pursuant to the Fisheries Act 2020. No offence is therefore made out by breach of the above regulations, by a recreational shoreside fisherman. This means that a lot of the enforcement powers provided for in Section 166(3) of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 cannot be relied on against recreational anglers fishing for sea bass from the seashore in a way that contravenes the restrictions listed above. However, it is very clear that such activity does amount to a relevant activity, and IFC officers have a power to require you to assist them in ensuring that you do not continue in that relevant activity. This could include releasing the fish or packing up and leaving the location. The IFC officer does not, in my view, have the power to seize the fish as this power can only be exercised where a relevant offence has been committed. I suppose that rather than seizing the fish, the IFC officer could *ask* you to forfeit the fish there and then in the exercise of his proper functions. This does then place you in a tricky position if you do not want to give up the fish. If you “fail without reasonable excuse to comply with a requirement reasonably made, or a direction reasonably given, by an enforcement officer”, or prevent any other person from complying, then, bingo, you have committed a criminal offence. This could include: not packing up and leaving when asked to do so, not putting the offending fish back in the water, or possibly not giving up the fish when asked for it. This would be an offence under Section 292(1) of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. There are some other offences in that section as well, including deliberately or recklessly giving false information, or assaulting an IFC officer, but I will leave you to read these provisions at your leisure as I trust none of my readers would stoop to such debauchery. If you commit the offence under Section 292(1), then you will be liable on conviction for a fine.

Before moving on from these regulations, it is also worth noting that no bass can be taken by fixed nets, but I do not fish with fixed nets and my handsome sea bass was a perfectly legal creature.

(Coastal fishing with a line and rod)

Once I had reeled my fellow in (photograph provided), and checked he was above the lower-end size limit, it fell on me to complete the job. A sharp knife thrust forward from the upper gills into the head gives an instant death. It is important to show respect for your quarry both in the kill itself and your handling of it afterwards. There is only very limited protection in law for fish however – and no prescribed standards as to how they should be handled or killed. A sea bass is an aquatic vertebrate and is of the Sub-phylum Vertebrata of the Phylum Chordata and so is included in the definition of “animal” for the purposes of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. By virtue of Section 4 of this Act the sea bass is protected from unnecessary suffering and should be dispatched in “an appropriate and humane manner” – however, activities that take place “in the ordinary course of fishing” are specifically exempt from the provisions of this Act by Section 59 and are not caught by this offence. To commit an offence of unnecessary suffering therefore, an angler would have to cause unnecessary suffering in a way that is clearly outside the ordinary course of fishing. What this means exactly for the shoreside angler is anybody’s guess. Although I am struggling to see how an angler could possibly commit an offence under this section, if they did then on summary conviction criminal liability would amount to a fine and / or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months.

We dispatched both fish quickly and as cleanly as possible, and at that point – kneeling on the pier under the dark night’s sky – we cleaned out the internals to avoid spoilage. I took the sea bass home with me, and Carl took his dab. After a few hours’ sleep, the following afternoon I began preparing my bass for the table.

The skin on a sea bass is something of a delicacy done well, so to prepare it and before filleting I scraped a knife against the grain of the scales to clear the skin of scales completely. I then washed it under running water to be sure. When it came to filleting I went one way down the backbone and then the other, producing the two nice sides of fish in the picture. But I am not a very good filleter and there was quite a lot of flesh still on the bones. Although you have to be careful not to get a bone lodged in your throat, frying these “extras” on a high heat seems to make the flesh fall away from the bone so you don’t end up wasting any of the flesh. One day I will have to answer to Saint Peter, so I tried to waste nothing.

I have included a photograph of the two fillets I prepared, and another of the plated meal. I prepared the fish (fried) with some new potatoes, fresh tomatoes, a chunk of farmhouse bread, and a salad made with some homegrown rhubarb (we got the rhubarb from a neighbour). The fish itself – with the potatoes, tomatoes and bread, was an absolute delight.

I am looking forward to the next time.

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