North Devon fishermen are taking part in an ambitious project to help explain why bass populations in the north Atlantic are dwindling.

Fishermen are working with researchers from the University of Plymouth to tag juvenile bass in the Taw and Torridge Estuary.

Recorded numbers in the north Atlantic have fallen dramatically in the past 10 years despite heavy restrictions put in place for both commercial and recreational fishing practices.

Now, working with fishermen in North (as well as South) Devon, researchers are looking to track the bass’ movements in order to develop a clearer understanding of their feeding patterns.

By liaising with officials and organisations, they then hope to use that information to inform local and national policies with the aim of conserving the species for the future.

‘Iconic species’

North Devon fishermen have been helping with the University of Plymouth project to find out why bass populations are dwindling. Picture: ContributedNorth Devon fishermen have been helping with the University of Plymouth project to find out why bass populations are dwindling. Picture: Contributed

The Immature Bass Acoustic Stock Surveillance (I-BASS) project is running for two-and-a-half years and being funded through a £242,000 grant from the European Marine Fisheries Fund.

Dr Emma Sheehan, senior research fellow in the university’s marine institute and project lead, said: “Bass is an iconic species that is both economically and ecologically valuable to our coastlines and estuaries.

“But there has been a recent crash in numbers and it is currently not clear why.

“By establishing monitoring sites, we can look at what proportion of time the juveniles spend in various habitats such as saltmarsh.

“We can also examine whether they are moving outside protected nursery areas which would obviously pose a threat to their survival.”

How will it work?

Working with fishing groups and the Devon & Severn Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority, it is hoped to tag 150 juvenile fish across the Salcombe, Dart, and Taw and Torridge estuaries.

During that process, scientists will also install a network of acoustic sensors out at sea which will then be used to construct a picture of each individual’s movements.

By tracking the fish in this way, the researchers hope to identify any hotspots where they congregate regularly so they can examine those habitats and assess why they are proving especially popular.

Ultimately, they hope the project will shed light on whether the fish are leaving the legally protected confines of their nurseries and venturing into areas of open fishing.

Thomas Stamp, who is working on the project as part of his PhD studies, said: “Historically, there have been extensive coastal and intertidal developments which have led to the loss of habitats which may have had a negative effect on bass populations.

“There have been efforts to address this and through this project we will be able to assess whether they are having the desired effect.”