Indicator Assessment

Fisheries: European commercial fish stocks

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-13-en
  Also known as: CSI 032 , MAR 007
Published 21 May 2010 Last modified 11 May 2021
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Of the assessed European commercial stocks, about 45 % are outside safe biological limits(1).

(1) A stock is considered to be outside 'Safe Biological Limits' (SBL) when the Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) (the mature part of a stock) is below a biomass precautionary approach reference point (Bpa), or when fishing mortality (F) (an expression of the proportion of a stock that is removed by fishing activities in a year) exceeds a fishing mortality precautionary approach reference point (Fpa), or when both conditions exist.

Status of fish stocks in the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) fishing regions of Europe, 2006

Note: The chart shows the proportion of assessed stocks which are overfished (red) and stocks within safe biological limits (blue): In the Baltic Sea, 12 stocks were assessed and 20% of them are overfished.

Data source:

For many commercial fish stocks in European waters an assessment on whether they are within safe biological limits has not been made. In the north-east Atlantic, the percentage of stocks that are non-assessed ranges from 3 % (west of Scotland and Ireland) to 34 % (Irish Sea and Iberian Peninsula). Moving from north to south the percentage of stocks that are non-assessed generally increases. In the Mediterranean region, the percentage ranges from 23 % in the Adriatic Sea to 70 % for tuna and tuna-like species for the entire Mediterranean. In the Black Sea no stocks have been assessed.

Of the assessed commercial stocks in the northeast Atlantic, 8 % (Baltic Sea) to 80 % (Irish Sea) are outside safe biological limits (SBL). For the other areas in the north-east Atlantic the percentages of stocks outside safe biological limits vary between 25 % and 55 %. Pelagic stocks (fish living in the waters column well above the sea bottom and sometimes close to the sea surface) like herring and mackerel are doing better in general than demersal (fish living close to the sea bottom) stocks like cod, plaice and sole. In the Mediterranean the percentage of stocks outside SBL ranges from 44 % to 73 %, with the Aegean and the Cretan Sea in the worst condition. Here the small pelagic stocks like anchovy and sardine are doing better than demersal stocks like hake and red mullet or larger pelagics such as bluefin tuna.

Examining the north-east Atlantic stocks more closely, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • The pelagic stocks are generally fished sustainably;
  • Almost all demersal stocks have declined and are currently not sustainable. Over the recent decades there has been a slight, but steady decline in the stocks and there is still no clear sign of a stop of this trend;
  • Industrial species especially the capelin and sandeel stocks are not doing well. This is, however, more due to natural causes than high fishing pressure (ICES Advisory Report 2006).

In the Mediterranean region the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Only two demersal and two small pelagic species are monitored by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), with a limited spatial coverage. Demersal stocks remain outside safe biological limits. Small pelagic stocks in the same area exhibit large-scale fluctuations but are not fully exploited anywhere except for anchovy and pilchard in the Southern Alboran and Cretan Sea;
  • According to the latest assessment by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) a strong recruitment of swordfish over recent years has rendered the exploitation of the stock sustainable;
  • Concern still remains about the overexploitation of bluefin tuna. Uncertainties of stock assessment and lack of documented reporting (including EU Member States) still hinder management of these highly migratory species. Bluefin tuna catches continue to exceed the sustainable rate.

EU Member States will make an integrated 'initial assessment' of the environmental situation of their marine waters pursuant to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive Art. 8, by mid-2012.

It is important to note that the indicator may not reflect the complete ecological impact of stock status. For example, even if relatively few stocks in the Baltic are outside biological limits the demise of cod stocks has a very significant impact on the ecosystem (probably relatively much more so than some other stocks).



Supporting information

Indicator definition

Annual change of proportion of commercial fish stocks within safe biological limits (SBL) in European Seas and per fisheries management unit.


landings are expressed in tonnes, stocks are expressed in number of stocks;


Policy context and targets

Context description

One of the main goals of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is to take conservation measures to prevent fish stocks from being overexploited.

By comparing trends over time in recruitment (R), spawning stock biomass (SSB), landings and fishing mortality (F), a fairly reliable picture of stock development can be derived. In general when mortality exceeds recruitment and growth, a stock can be characterised as being outside safe biological limits.

Relation of the indicator to the focal area

The 'proportion of commercial fish stocks within and outside safe biological limits' is an indication of the extent to which fish stocks have not been sustainably managed, but overexploited.

Whether all stocks should be within safe biological limits is a societal/political choice. For the individual stocks, and for biodiversity, a sustainably managed stock needs to be within safe biological limits.


No targets have been specified

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified



Methodology for indicator calculation

With the introduction of the precautionary approach, a stock is considered to be outside 'Safe Biological Limits' (SBL) when the Spawning Stock Biomass (SSB) (the mature part of a stock) is below a biomass precautionary approach reference point (Bpa), or when the Fishing mortality (F) (an expression of the proportion of a stock that is removed by fishing activities in a year) exceeds a fishing mortality precautionary approach reference point (Fpa), or when both conditions exist. This is the approach followed for stocks in the north-east Atlantic and Baltic Sea.

In the Mediterranean, stock assessment is at a relative early stage of development judged by the criteria of North Atlantic fisheries, and the development of reference points is still underway. Stock assessment of the Mediterranean resources is based  mainly on analysis of landing trends, biomass surveys, and the analysis of commercial catch per unit effort (CPUE) data, given the absence of complete or independent information on fishing intensity or fishing mortality, and stocks are assessed in terms of being over fished or not.

More details can be found in the specification sheet for EEA Core Set indicator 032 at

Methodology for gap filling


Methodology references

No methodology references available.



Methodology uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sets uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Rationale uncertainty


  • Different approaches are being used in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic to determine if a stock is outside safe biological limits. No precautionary reference points are defined for the Mediterranean stocks. With the data that are currently available it is difficult to quantify this indicator and hence 'over fished stocks' is used instead.
  • Not all commercial species are monitored (in respect to precautionary approach) in norht-east Atlantic and Baltic and in Mediterranean there is limited species and spatial coverage.
  • The final decision on the level of exploitation of stocks (e.g. total allowable catches) is a task for managers/politicians and not scientists. Decisions are based on safety margins usually set at 30 % above safe limits which in turn bear a degree of uncertainty since estimates of F and SSB area uncertain themselves.


This indicator was selected because of its established methodology and inclusion in the EEA's core set of indicators.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CSI 032
  • MAR 007
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage



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Filed under: fish stocks
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