Ecologists ask for less trawling and restricted areas to stop fish massacre

At the Marrakesh Summit held on June 11-12, coastal countries confirmed their commitment to combat overfishing in the Mediterranean, the most overexploited sea in the world. However, scientists argue that total bans in the most vulnerable areas are required.

Published On: June 13th, 2019
Ecologists ask for less trawling and restricted areas to stop fish massacre_62ccaee3b5263.jpeg
Ecologists ask for less trawling and restricted areas to stop fish massacre_62ccaee3b5263.jpeg

Photo: "Overfishing infographic posters" BY - NC - ND

Ecologists ask for less trawling and restricted areas to stop fish massacre

At the Marrakesh Summit held on June 11-12, coastal countries confirmed their commitment to combat overfishing in the Mediterranean, the most overexploited sea in the world. However, scientists argue that total bans in the most vulnerable areas are required.

Photo: “Overfishing infographic posters” BY – NC – ND

For many years, scientists have been warning us about the coastal fishing eldorados where trawlers inflict the most damage in the Mediterranean. In such places, young fish gather for reproduction, but are killed before they can even produce offspring. This is especially true for species such as hake and red mullet, which live at or near the bottom of the sea, and are often scooped up by trawl nets in large numbers. Particularly hake, the most endangered species, is fished more than 10 times its sustainability level, according to the last report of the FAO Scientific Advisory Committee on Fisheries .

Reducing the mortality rate of juvenile fish is crucial, since they have higher reproduction rates than adults and therefore contribute the most to fish stock preservation. If these young fish were allowed to reach maturity and reproduce at least once, Mediterranean fish stocks would be greatly improved.

This is basic science, but political decisions, necessarily built on compromise, tend to follow the easiest rather than the most effective path. This is no less true of the new Western Mediterranean (WestMed) Fishery Management Plan , approved by the European Parliament last April and entering into force in 2020. Besides a slow multi-annual reduction of fishing activities, the plan only establishes a general trawling ban, subjected to both space and time limits. Introducing total restriction regimes in sensitive spawning and nursery areas is only an option that Member States are free to adopt or not.

According to Fabio Fiorentino, senior researcher at the Italian Marine Biological Resources and Biotechnologies, “Total closure of spawning and nursery areas would be a better option, but this could be more complex in terms of enforcement because coast guards would have to monitor vessels’ operations across disconnected vast areas rather than simply checking how deep and how far vessels fish along the coast line”.

The plan is a good start, scientists say, but it should evolve into permanent restrictions in fish biomass regeneration hotspots where massive captures of under-sized specimen lead to a situation where overexploitation hits 80% of the total fish stocks In the West Mediterranean. This is the conclusion shared by members of the research community with whom we conducted in-depth interviews.

In the first part of our MedFISH investigation , we looked at the influence of lobbies in the WestMed decision-making process. Now we explain the practical, environmental implications of the plan’s conservation measures.

Call for Science-driven Legislation

The need to bridge the gap between scientific evidence and policymaking was reiterated by environmentalists at the recent High-level conference of the FAO’s General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) that gathered the representatives of both EU and non-EU 23 riparian countries. The conference displayed loads of PR speeches by international organisations and national governments officials about the progress supposedly made to end overfishing since the signing of the Malta MedFish4Ever Declaration. This multi-lateral initiative, launched two years ago, set a roadmap with concrete actions to be implemented in the long run. “We must keep up the direction and the speed, committing to do even more in the coming years”, Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries of the European Union, said.

The NGO Oceana, which attended the event, called upon policymakers to stick to their promise to protect fish habitats as an urgent measure. “So far, Mediterranean countries are failing to protect areas crucial for the survival of fish as they committed to do so in 2017”, says Nicolas Fournier, Policy Manager at Oceana in Europe. “Sound fisheries management must become a top priority for the Mediterranean”.

Ahead of the official institutional meeting in Marrakesh, the WWF organized a side-panel called “Science to Action”. The workshop focused on the benefits of creating marine managed areas, where fishery is properly regulated. “We gathered together marine conservation managers, fishery representatives and scientists, to discuss a holistic approach to ecosystem-based planning within the context of blue growth (meaning sea-related business)”, says Marina Gomei, Regional Projects Manager at the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative. The WWF has developed a series of EU-funded projects, including Safenet in the West Mediteranean, that provide science-based simulations of fisheries sustainability improvements through well designed regulation in sensitive areas.

“The impact of overfishing is worsened by other environmental and man-made factors, such as pollution, climate change, naval transportation, the invasion of alien species”, says Gianfranco d’Onghia, Professor in Ecology at the Department of Biology in the University of Bari Aldo Moro. As a result of the combined effect of all these factors, the Mediterranen has lost 34 percent of its fish stocks, including both commercial and non-commercial species, according to a study by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission . While fishery is not the only driver of the depletion of marine resources, better regulation is crucial to counter the crisis. Measures undertaken so far have proved to be insufficient since fish mortality has remained very high and almost constant in the Mediterranean. Trends are especially negative in the Western part of the sea, where large fleets from Italy, France and Spain pillaged its depth to the point that the number of young fish population has almost halved from 2007 to 2016, according to EU scientific estimates. For this reason, in 2018 over 150 scientists signed a joint statement asking European legislators to adopt and implement the WestMed Plan through strictly following scientific advice.

The sensitive areas in the West Mediterranean that should be closed to commercial fishery are well known, since they have been extensively mapped over time, based on scientific data. However, according to Fournier, “because of strong resistance from EU co-legislators (the European Parliament and the Council of national governments), the European Commission preferred not to force the closing of such areas in the regulation itself, in order to avoid conflictual reactions from the industry against what could have been perceived as a Brussels-diktat, and instead preferred to encourage governments to create restricted areas by themselves as a convenient alternative to the trawling ban”. Indeed, the regulation allows Member States to lift the ban, which covers the whole coastline, provided they can achieve a 20 percent catch reduction of young hake in specific protected areas. The achievement of this goal has to be demonstrated through prior impact-assessment analysis and follow-up monitoring. National administrations will have to submit their special restriction plans within the next two years, in order to obtain Commission approval. 

One-size-fits-all Trawling Ban Is Not a Good Fit for Fish

The WestMed Plan was adopted through a compromise between conservation requirements and fishing industry interests. As a result, trawling (the most environmentally harmful technique used by commercial fishers) was banned up to 100m of depth, but only within 6 nautical miles of the coast and only for 3 months a year that Member States can arbitrarily choose.

“Banning trawling within 100mt everywhere all year round, as NGOs had asked for, would obviously benefit fish stocks, but it would have been excessive in some cases”, d’Onghia explains. “Coastal zones are not the same along the Mediterranean, therefore restrictions need to be differentiated depending on each specific area”. As usual, the devil is in the details.

According to d’Onghia, where the seafloor mostly consists of mud and therefore has less biodiversity, a three-month ban is enough, while for sensitive areas that provide home, food and reproduction habitats, the 100m ban should be permanent. Indeed, the previous EU regulation already banned trawling above 50m or three nautical miles from the coast all year round, in order to protect Posidonia oceanica, an endemic aquatic plant that lives close to the coast and represents an essential habitat for several fish species. A ban within 100m without temporal or spatial limitations would have extended this protection to coral-rich habitats.

“Limiting the duration of the trawling ban to 3 months is of little use since spawning and aggregation of juveniles spans several months, mostly from early spring to summer, and even at depths under 100m. Therefore, in reproduction areas fishing should be totally banned for longer periods”, says Francesco Colloca, Senior Researcher at the Italian Institute for Marine Biological Resources and Biotechnologies. As his colleague Fabio Fiorentino explains: “for example, the hake performs its reproduction between 100 and 250m, a depth where trawling is still allowed”.

Moreover, according to d’Onghia, “additional loopholes in the legislation, resulting from pressure from lobbies, prevent effective protection: some of the few restricted areas in the Mediterranean are located outside of the actual nursery and reproduction locations, closed seasons do not always correspond to juveniles aggregation periods, and net meshes are still too small to prevent the capture of under-sized specimen”.

“It is true that the levels of adult fish in the sea are very low and most catches consist of juvenile fish, so it is necessary to rebuild populations so that more juveniles have the chance to become adults and more adults have the chance to become old”, says Clara Ulrich, Professor in fisheries management at the Danish National Institute of Aquatic Resources  and Chair of the Working Groups supporting the Western Mediterranean Plan at the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), an independent EU consultative body of fishery decision-making. “But protecting juveniles without reducing the fishing pressure on adults does not guarantee sustainability, which can only be achieved when cumulative mortality, including both juvenile and adult fish, does not exceed the sustainable level estimated by scientists”.

Reducing Fish Mortality: A Real Conundrum

The pressure on fishstocks, according to Ulrich, requires the overall reduction of fishing activities. And, in fact, restraining the number of days that fishermen can spend at sea, technically defined as “fishing effort”, is another important measure included in the WestMed Plan.

Governments gathering in Brussels will have to progressively reduce fishing effort every year, based on advice from STECF (“Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries”). Again, compromises between short-term profitability and long-term sustainability have led to uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of the adopted measures.

“The Mediterranean is rich in species that have different sustainability levels based on their different life cycles”, Fabio Fiorentino says. “Therefore the fishing effort reduction set each year may be sufficient to preserve one species but not another, and, since trawlers catch multiple species at once, it is practically impossible to set specific fishing efforts suitable for each species”.

The WestMed Plan allows for a maximum reduction of 10 percent for the first year (and up to 30 percent for the next four years of the implementation period). This is enough for the deep water rose, which are already capable of reproduction when it is less than 1 year old, live no longer than 3 years, and therefore may be fished at a higher pace. On the other hand, this percentage is way too low for hake, which have a later reproduction stage (3-4 years), live for up to 25 years, and therefore require a slower pace of fishing. 

A study published in 2016 by DG Mare, the Fisheries Department of the European Commission, concluded that achieving a sustainable fishing level for hake would require a mortality reduction between 61 and 93 percent depending on the areas concerned. However, according to Fiorentino, “it is hard to determine an accurate mathematical correlation between fishing effort and fish mortality, since that would imply analysing in a comparative way long-term historical data sets which we still do not have”. That’s why Paraskevas Vasilakopoulos of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research argues that “Bigger investments are needed to improve Mediterranean fisheries research through the collection and analysis of good quality data regarding the biology and exploitation of Mediterranean fish stocks”.

Making the correlation between exploitation and mortality rates even more complicated is the fact that some fishers are more efficient than others and can catch more fish in the same number of days. As Clara Ulrich explains, “all of this means that we often have to work on assumptions, especially in the early years, because it takes time before one can see the effects of the regulations in place”.

Based on updated data sets and projection models, last March the STECF provided draft advice on the methodology to calculate the effort reduction needed to achieve sustainability for the different species. The advice will be reviewed again in October 2019, alongside the most recent data, in order to quantify the recommended fishing effort reduction for 2020, when the WestMed management plan enters into force. Then it will be up to government representatives, meeting in Brussels, to decide the extent to which they intend to follow these scientific recommendations. And, eventually, they might end up agreeing a fishing effort reduction even lower than the 10% cap.

“Given the very poor situation in the Mediterranean, this plan is the first step to improve the situation, and since the goal is so distant, we have to start somewhere”, Ulrich says. Fiorentino draws a similar conclusion: “all in all, it is better to start with a plan and make things happen along the way, rather than being stuck with a situation of non-harmonized fishery regulation at the EU level, where there is no common framework to monitor results and correct the trajectory”.

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