LONDON (Reuters) - British fish stocks have dropped by 94 percent in the past 118 years and commercial fishing has profoundly changed seabed ecosystems, leading to a collapse in numbers of many species, scientists said on Tuesday.
The dramatic decline means fisherman working today land only a fraction of the fish caught by their predecessors 100 years ago, when the British fleet brought in four times more fish, according to a study by researchers at the University of York.
"It is clear that seabed ecosystems have undergone a profound reorganization since the industrialization of fishing and that commercial stocks of most bottom-living species, which once comprised an important component of marine ecosystems, collapsed long ago," Callum Roberts and Ruth Thurstan wrote in the study published in the Nature Communications journal.
The findings show fishing quota systems have done nothing to mitigate the fall and underline the need for urgent action to stop the overexploitation of European fisheries and rebuild stocks, the scientists said.
Analysing historical fish landing statistics dating back to 1889, the researchers found the industrialization of fishing had led to relentless exploitation of stocks -- particularly species such as cod, haddock and plaice which are popular on British dinner plates -- and fishing laws such as the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) had failed to stem the decline.
They also found that increases in fishing power, as Britain's fishing boats transformed from a fleet of sailing boats to one made up of technologically sophisticated trawlers, did little to increase the ability to catch large amounts of fish.
"It shows clearly how the rewards of fishing have fallen along with the availability of fish to the fleet," Thurstan told Reuters in a telephone interview.
In 1889, a largely sail-powered fleet landed twice as much fish into Britain as the present-day fleet, the study found. In 1910, the fleet landed four times more fish than today and peak catches came in 1938, 5.4 times more fish were brought in.
This means fishermen would have to work 17 times harder now than 118 years ago to catch the same amount of fish, the researchers said.
"I hope this allows people to realize just how much the seas have been altered and how much has been lost," Thurstan said.
The EU's CFP has been reviewed every 10 years since its creation in 1983 and new reforms are due to be agreed in 2012.
The European Commission, which oversees EU fishing policy, said last year in a consultation on CFP reform that nearly 90 percent of EU fish stocks were over-exploited.
Thurstan said the priority should be to create marine conservation areas, where fishing is banned altogether, to allow stocks of threatened fish species to recover.
While the CFP is often blamed for declines in fish stocks, Thurstan noted that the study showed that much of the decline had taken place before the policy came into force.
"The CFP wasn't to blame for the major declines, however it has also failed to allow fish stocks to recover -- so in essence it has not made the situation any better," she said.
Editing by Alison Williams