Marine fish stocks

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 07 Dec 2018
12 min read
Marine fish stocks

Indicator

EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook
for the EU meeting
the selected
objective by 2020

Status of marine fish stocks

Green triangle: improving trend

Ensure healthy fish stocks — Common Fisheries
Policy and Marine Strategy Framework Directive

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020


The EU is improving the state of its commercial fish and shellfish species in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, while there are no signs of improvement in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. It is unlikely that the objective of healthy commercial fish and shellfish populations will be met in Europe’s seas by 2020.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP), in line with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), requires the EU to achieve by 2020 good environmental status (GES) of the marine environment, which means that the different uses made of Europe’s seas should be conducted at a sustainable level. Fishing is one of the main pressures affecting GES, in particular the state of commercial fish and shellfish species. Historically, fishing beyond sustainable levels has made it difficult to reach the objective of healthy fish and shellfish populations. Currently, around 67 % of commercial fish and shellfish stocks in Europe’s seas are not in GES when assessing both the level of fishing mortality and reproductive capacity, while 72% of the stocks meet at least one of the two GES criteria. This assessment does not yet include the third GES criterion on age and size structure of the populations as this cannot be assessed at present. Among European seas, there are strong differences in the state and level of progress with regard to achieving good environmental status of commercial fish and shellfish populations. Although further improvements would still be necessary in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, the situation has improved significantly with clear signs of recovery of commercial fish and shellfish stocks since the early 2000s. In the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, the situation remains critical given the prevalence of overfishing and a significant lack of knowledge of the status of fish and shellfish stocks. Given this context, the 2020 objective of having healthy fish and shellfish populations is unlikely to be met in Europe´s seas and further collective action is required.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP stipulates that the EU shall ensure that by 2020 the impact of pressures on all marine waters is reduced in order to achieve or maintain GES, as required by the MSFD (EU, 2013a). Fishing is one of the main pressures affecting the marine environment, in particular the state of commercial fish and shellfish species. Ensuring healthy fish and shellfish populations is essential for well-functioning ecosystems, but also to sustain fishing as a source of healthy food in the long term.

Policy targets and progress

Safeguarding healthy commercial fish and shellfish populations is one of the 11 MSFD (EU, 2008) descriptors for achieving GES. This objective is closely related to the objectives of the new Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) (EU, 2013b), in particular the objective of ensuring the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for all stocks by 2015 where possible, and at the latest by 2020[1].

Currently, around 67 %[2] of the assessed commercial fish and shellfish stocks in Europe’s seas are not in GES when assessing both the level of fishing mortality and reproductive capacity, while 72 % of the stocks meet at least one of the criteria for GES (EEA, 2018). This assessment does not include the third GES criterion on age and size structure of the populations as this cannot be assessed at present.

Figure 1 shows that there are strong regional differences. Approximately 81 % of the commercial fish and shellfish stocks in the North-East Atlantic ocean (i.e. Barents Sea, Bay of Biscay, Celtic Sea, Greenland Sea, Iceland Sea, North Sea and Norwegian Sea) and the Baltic Sea meet at least one of the two GES criteria (fishing mortality and reproductive capacity), while 37 % are in GES according to both of these criteria. The status of commercial fish and shellfish stocks is especially critical in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea where only 7 % are in GES, based on a single criterion, i.e. fishing mortality.

Figure 1. Status of fish and shellfish stocks in regional seas around Europe, 2015

Sources: Stocks in the North East Atlantic and the Baltic Sea were assessed based on the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) database, published in 2017. Stocks in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, and other widely distributed stocks were assessed based on assessments available through the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for fisheries (STECF), published in 2015-2017. The figure is based on 2015 data. Note that as there was no information for 2015 for the stocks in the Black Sea, an interpretation was made from the 2014 and 2016 data for the Black Sea (see EEA CSI032, 2018 methodology for further information).

Note: This figure shows the status of the assessed European commercial fish and shellfish stocks in relation to Good Environmental Status (GES) per regional sea in 2015. Stocks for which adequate information is available to determine GES for fishing mortality (F) and/or reproductive capacity (SSB) are included in this figure (i.e. total number of assessed stocks). The third GES criterion on healthy age and size distribution cannot be assessed at present. A distinction is made between stocks (i) in GES based on both F  and SBB, (ii) in GES based on either F or SBB, and (iii) not in GES based on F and SBB (see EEA CSI032, 2018 methodology for further information on how GES is determined and European Commission Decision 2017/848/EU on criteria and methodological standards on GES). As assessments are carried out in a multi-annual cycle within the Mediterranean, number of stocks included in this figure for the Mediterranean correspond to 2015.

While the information base continues to improve, it is still far from perfect. For the EU as a whole, most of the landings (63 %) are from stocks for which their status could be assessed against at least one GES criterion. However, there are distinct regional differences. Figure 2 shows that an assessment of status is not possible for 70 % of total landings from the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, compared with 32 % of those from the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea (EEA, 2018).

Figure 2. Proportion of fish and shellfish landings with Good Environmental Status information in regional seas around Europe, 2015

Sources: Landings information for the North-East Atlantic and the Baltic Sea is based on the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Official Nominal Catches, 2006-2015 dataset. Landings information for the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea is based on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) capture production dataset. The figure is based on 2015 data. It should be noted that FAO and ICES receive their catch statistics from Eurostat (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/fisheries/data/database).

Note: This figure shows  landings of commercial fish and shellfish per regional seas, and proportion of landings for which stock assessments are conducted in 2015. A distinction is made between the landings for (i) assessed stocks for which adequate information is available to determine good environmental status (GES) for fishing mortality (F) and/or reproductive capacity (SSB), (ii) assessed stocks for which insufficient information is available to determine GES for F and/or SSB, and (iii) unassessed stocks (for further information see EEA CSI032, 2018 methodology on how this distinction is made and European Commission Decision 2017/848/EU on criteria and methodological standards on GES of marine waters). 

It is clear that the overall use of fish and shellfish stocks in Europe currently remains beyond the limit for long-term environmental sustainability. Nevertheless, historical trends in fish landings show that total landings in Europe’s seas reached a peak in the mid-1970s, but have been mostly declining ever since (Pastoors and Poulsen, 2008; Gascuel et al., 2014).

The North-East Atlantic Ocean together with the Baltic Sea account for the highest proportion of EU landings, with 87 % of total landings from major fishing areas taking place here in 2015. Important signs of improvement are being observed in these two regional seas. Since the early 2000s, better management of fish and shellfish stocks has contributed to a clear decrease in fishing pressure in these two regional seas (EEA, 2015; EC, 2017a). Between 2009 and 2018, the number of stocks exploited at sustainable levels (i.e. fishing at or below maximum sustainable yield in accordance with the fishing mortality or the reproductive capacity criteria) increased from 5 to 53 (STEF, 2018). Signs of recovery in the reproductive capacity of several fish and shellfish stocks have started to appear (EEA, 2018). If these efforts continue, meeting the 2020 objective for healthy fish and shellfish stocks in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea could be possible based on at least one of the two criteria (fishing mortality or reproductive capacity). In contrast, there is no sign of improvement in the Mediterranean Sea or the Black Sea (EC, 2017a), despite the EU’s commitment to ensuring better governance for sustainable fisheries in the Mediterranean region. This is because of fishing pressures, significant lack of knowledge on the status of fish and shellfish stocks and the difficulties in the Mediterranean Sea in adopting management measures for a single stock due to the high multi-specificity of Mediterranean catches.

It is unlikely that the objective of healthy commercial fish and shellfish populations in EU marine waters will be met by 2020. Although significant improvements have been observed in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea, only 37 % of the commercial fish and shellfish stock meet both GES criteria (fishing mortality and reproductive capacity) in these waters. The lack of progress and the poor state of the stocks in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea are a cause for concern, Further collective action is required, not least in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.

Outlook beyond 2020

Fishing management measures, when effectively implemented, can have a positive effect on the state of fish and shellfish stocks, as can be seen in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea. However, ensuring healthy fish and shellfish populations does not depend solely on fishing at environmentally sustainable levels, although it is a necessary condition. Healthy fish populations depend on healthy marine ecosystems but, today, our use of Europe’s seas and their natural capital is not sustainable (EEA, 2015). Europe’s marine ecosystems continue to display symptoms of degradation and loss of resilience, which will be exacerbated by the effects of climate change. These systemic changes are still complex and to a large extent poorly understood, but they are closely linked to the loss of biodiversity. Without an integrated approach to the management and protection of Europe’s seas — which would make ecosystem-based management a reality, as required by both the MSFD and the CFP — the outlook beyond 2020 for productive seas and healthy fish and shellfish populations is a cause for concern.

About the indicator

The indicator assesses the status of fish and shellfish stocks in Europe’s regional seas, which represent the populations of commercial fish and shellfish species, in relation to GES. The indicator also provides an overview of the availability of information to provide a GES assessment. The indicator follows the GES methodological standards as currently defined by Commission Decision 2017/848/EU (EC, 2017b). It measures GES by assessing two criteria — the level of fishing mortality (i.e. fishing pressure) and the reproductive capacity of fish stocks (i.e. spawning stock biomass) — against their sustainable reference levels (i.e. maximum sustainable yield or a proxy). The third GES criterion on healthy age and size distribution cannot be assessed at present. The indicator reflects the current level of implementation of the MSFD and the availability of data to be used in an EU-level assessment.

Footnotes and references

[1] According to Annex I, populations of all commercially exploited fish (and shellfish) are within safe biological limits, exhibiting a population age and size distribution that is indicative of a healthy stock no later than 2020. Likewise, the scope of the CFP includes the conservation of marine biological resources and the management of fisheries targeting them. To that end, the CFP should adapt exploitation rates so as to ensure that, within a reasonable time-frame, the exploitation of marine biological resources restores and maintains populations of harvested stocks above levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. This should be achieved by 2015 or no later than 2020.

[2] This estimate cannot be compared with the estimate provided in the 2017 version as a result of:

         i.           Working with updated (the most recent version of the ICES Stock database and ICES Official Nominal catches 2006-2015 dataset for the North-East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea) and different (STECF Mediterranean and Black Sea Working Group Reports for the Mediterranean and Black Sea) data sources.

       ii.            Methodological improvements on:

    • handling widely distributed stocks. In the most recent version, landings of stocks that cover 2-3 ecoregions have been redistributed over the different ecoregions and stock information on the GES criteria has been attributed to all ecoregions of which the stock is a part. Stocks covering more than three ecoregions are presented as widely distributed stocks;
    • determining stock catches. The most recent version uses landings rather than catches. Furthermore, in this version, landings for the different stocks have been derived from the ICES Official Nominal Catches 2006-2015 dataset. Where this was not possible, landings were derived from the ICES Stock database;
    • Assessed stocks for which insufficient information is available to determine GES for F and/or SSB have been included in the analysis, i.e. total number of assessed stocks (Figure 1) and landings for assessed stocks for which no information is available to determine GES for F and/or SSB (Figure 2).

EU, 2008, Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) (OJ L 164, 25.6.2008, p. 19).

EU, 2013a, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, Annex A, paragraph 28g (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

EU, 2013b, Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1954/2003 and (EC) No 1224/2009 and repealing Council Regulations (EC) No 2371/2002 and (EC) No 639/2004 and Council Decision 2004/585/EC (OJ L 354/22, 28.12.2013, p. 22–61).

EC, 2017a, Communication from the Commission on the State of Play of the Common Fisheries Policy and Consultation on the Fishing Opportunities for 2018’ (COM (2017) 368 final of 5 July 2017).

EC, 2017b, Commission Decision (EU) 2017/848 of 17 May 2017 Laying Down Criteria and Methodological Standards on Good Environmental Status of Marine Waters and Specifications and Standardised Methods for Monitoring and Assessment, and Repealing Decision 2010/477/EU.

EEA, 2015, State of Europe’s seas, European Environment Agency (https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/state-of-europes-seas) accessed 22 February 2018.

EEA, 2018, forthcoming, ‘Status of marine fish stocks (CSI 032)’ (https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/status-of-marine-fish-stocks-3/assessment) European Environment Agency.

Gascuel, D. et al., 2014, 'Fishing impact and environmental status in European seas: a diagnosis from stock assessments and ecosystem indicators', Fish and Fisheries, pp. 93–104.

Pastoors, M., and Poulsen, B. (Eds.) (2008). Report of the Workshop on historical data on fisheries and fish (WKHIST). Copenhagen: International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. (ICES CM 2008/RMC:04).

STECF, 2018, Tackling overfishing – EU push for sustainability shows results, Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) (https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/tackling-overfishing-%E2%80%93-eu-push-sustainability-shows-results_en) accessed 26 February 2018.

 

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

Related content

Based on indicators

Status of marine fish and shellfish stocks in European seas Status of marine fish and shellfish stocks in European seas Safeguarding healthy commercial fish and shellfish populations is one of the 11 descriptors of the Marine Stretegy Framework Directive (MSFD) for achieving GES. This objective is closely related to the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), in particular the objective of ensuring the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for all stocks by 2015 where possible, and at the latest by 2020. Currently, around 74 % of the assessed fish and shellfish stocks in Europe’s seas are not in GES, whereas only 26 % are in GES when assessing both the level of fishing mortality and reproductive capacity; this assessment does not include the third GES criterion on age and size structure of the populations as this cannot be assessed at present. These percentages vary considerably between MSFD (sub)regions — from at least 67-88 % of the stocks meeting at least one of the GES criteria in the regions in the NE Atlantic and the Baltic Sea to only one out of 27 (4 %) and one out of 8 (13 %) in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea respectively. Important signs of improvement are being observed in the NE Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea. Since the early 2000s, better management of fish and shellfish stocks has contributed to a clear decrease in fishing pressure in these two regional seas. Signs of recovery in the reproductive capacity of several fish and shellfish stocks have started to appear. If these efforts continue, meeting the 2020 objective for healthy fish and shellfish stocks in the NE Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea could be possible based on two of the three criteria (i.e. fishing mortality and reproductive capacity). In contrast, there is little likelihood that the 2020 policy objective will be met in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

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