A national press ad, in the Bridgewater Mercury, for crime prevention and reporting stated "Over the past 20 years elver stocks have fallen by 95%". Illegal fishing needs to be controlled if we are to have sustainable elver fishery. Don't let illegal fishermen get an advantage over you". Another headline stated "Small fish BIG PROBLEM" and further text invited readers to contact Crimestoppers "if you have information about illegal or unauthorised fishing", such as "Elver fishing outside the permitted river catchments" and "Elver fishing during the close season".
The complainant, a fisherman, challenged whether the claim "Over the past 20 years elver stocks have fallen by 95%" was misleading and could be substantiated, because he understood that information from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) showed that the reported eel catch in 1992 was five tonnes and that production 20 years later was three tonnes.
Crimestoppers said the campaign was a joint campaign run with the Environment Agency (EA) and they had worked closely together to identify priorities in order to generate information from the public which would be of use to them. They said the statistic in the claim was taken directly from scientific research and a report appointed by the European Commission. They said the research was studied and documented by the joint European Inland Fisheries
Advisory Commission (EIFAAC)/Independent Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Working Group on Eels, an independent group of scientists across Europe asked to assess and report on the stock of the European Eels, which had concluded with the statistic outlined in the ad. They said the European Commission had acted on that report and passed through relevant legislation, which gave an example of the strength of the research. They said the published research and the conclusion was that the eel stock had crashed by 95%. They said that was the most recent annual report document, so the statistics were up to date. They pointed out that the report stated "For the last five years the WGEEL recruitment level index average between less than 1% (continental North Sea) and 5% (elsewhere in Europe) of 1960-1979 levels" and said a graph also showed that the glass eel stocks had fallen by 95% (from pre 1980 levels) and the elver stocks had crashed by 95% and regulatory measures had been taken to control the fishery. They had reworded the result of the research so it was easier for the general public to understand.
The EA said it supported Crimestoppers' response. It noted that the complainant had referred to a Defra document entitled "Eel Management Plans for the United Kingdom Overview for England & Wales" from March 2010, which stated in its overview "Estimates at the glass eel stage indicate that recruitment across Europe has fallen to below five percent of historic levels". They said the claim was also based on that documentation although the timescale was now nearer to 30 years than the 20 years since it was first noted. They accepted that the timescale used in the claim should have been more accurate, but said the key point was to highlight the scale of the decline and the critical point of the crash in the single European stock. They stated that the documentation showed that the stock was currently at 5% of that previously available.
They noted the complainant had also provided data which showed that there had been an increase in catches in the Severn from 2009 to 2012, which detailed local stock only. They added that it was important to note that the European eel was considered to be one Europe wide stock, rather than discrete populations. In managing that one stock, much of the data referenced was based on Europe-wide studies. They said it was also important to note the difference between catch and stock, and, against a background of falling stock levels, it was possible to increase catch by increasing the fishing effort, which masked the decline in numbers of fish entering the river. They said the ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) advice on European eel stocks was "Abundance of all stages of eel (glass eel, yellow eel, and silver eel) is at an historical minimum. The stock is in a critical state. In 2007, eel was included in CITES Appendix II that deals with species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled to avoid utilization incompatible with the survival of the species".
The ASA noted that the claim referred to the fall in stock over "the past 20 years" and considered readers would therefore expect the comparison to be based on data from around 1992. However, the EIFAAC/ICES data related to the average recruitment level index "from the last five years" compared to "1960–1979 levels" and understood therefore that comparison was not based on levels from just 20 years ago, but from the stock levels some time before that. Although we noted that the EIFAAC/ICES graph showed that there had been a significant fall in stocks since the 1950s and 60s, it did not suggest that stock levels had fallen by 95% since the early 1990s, as the claim suggested. On that basis, because we did not consider that the evidence was sufficient to support the implied claim that elver stocks had fallen by 95% since around 1992, we concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation).
The ad must not appear again in its current form.